American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

2019 Martin Memorial Lecture

The Health of the Supreme Court—Revisited

Nina Totenberg

I have been attending the ACS Clinical Congress for many years with my husband, David Reines, MD, FACS, who is a Fellow of the College, so I knew the lay of the land. What I didn't know was… what, on earth I was going to tell a group of surgeons that they didn't already know. After all, I am not a health care provider. I am a journalist who covers the Supreme Court.

In the end, it was my husband who suggested that I talk about the court and the health of the Justices. Afterall, Supreme Court Justices are patients too, and their illnesses while individually inconvenient, scary, and sad, can also have an enormous affect on the public and society at large. Like other patients, Supreme Court Justices have experienced cancer, broken bones, and even a tracheostomy AND while they have forged ahead with their work—despite accidents, illnesses, and surgeries—we can't minimize the challenges they have to overcome.

I was aided in my speech by an interview I did with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg about her experiences as a cancer patient. She sat for the interview a couple of months before I delivered my speech, and well over a year before her death in September 2020.

She, of course, was hardly the only Justice to suffer from serious illness during her tenure, and the speech I gave sought to go back in history, even to the early days of the republic, to discuss the accidents and ailments that befell Justices, including the great Chief Justice John Marshall.

Not all of the tales I told were noble ones. Some Justices had to be pushed to retire. A few refused. Others were called "senile" when they were just hard of hearing. And, as it turned out, it was a lot easier for Justices to make the decision to step down, after Congress enacted a law providing pensions for retired members of the court. Prior to that, some Justices simply couldn't afford to retire.