When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg walked from behind a stage curtain on a recent Friday afternoon, a huge roar went up from the jammed auditorium at George Washington University.
At age 81, Ginsburg has emerged as the Supreme Court’s liberal leader, its strongest voice for women’s rights and an increasingly outspoken critic of the court’s conservative majority. And to her surprise, she has also become a celebrity and a star on the Web for a younger generation of law students and political activists.
This fall, as she begins her 22nd year on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg is at the height of her influence and public acclaim, but she also faces a decision that may be the most consequential of her career: Should she retire when the term ends in June so President Obama can name her successor?
Early in her career, Ginsburg said she aspired to match her hero, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who served 22 years on the court and retired when he was 82.
Ginsburg, who will turn 82 in March, has sent signals that she has no plans to quit soon, saying she will continue as long as she can go “full steam.”
Her friends and former law clerks have rallied to her defense.
“She is clearly at the top of her game,” said Washington lawyer Lisa Blatt, a clerk for Ginsburg when she served on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
“She is taking on a huge leadership role, and she has never been more engaged. Because of her seniority, her voice comes through loud and clear. She is not going to be intimidated by people saying it’s time to leave.”
But while most on the left laud Ginsburg’s work, some worry her legacy could be tarnished if she stays beyond 2015. Their fear is that if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, she could be replaced by a staunch conservative.