WASHINGTON (AFP) – United States (US) Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, opening a crucial vacancy on the high court expected to set off a pitched political battle at the peak of the presidential campaign.
Affectionately known as the Notorious RBG, the 87-year-old Ginsburg was the oldest of nine Supreme Court justices.
She died after a fight with pancreatic cancer, the court announced, saying she passed away “surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, DC”.
Coming just 46 days before an election in which United States (US) President Donald Trump lags his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls, the vacancy offers the Republican a chance to lock in a conservative majority at the court for decades to come.
Trump issued a statement praising Ginsburg as a “titan of the law”, but gave no indication whether he intended to press ahead with a nomination.
Accolades flowed in for the pioneering Jewish justice.
“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” said Chief Justice John Roberts.
Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama said in a tweet that Ginsburg “fought to the end, through her cancer, with unwavering faith in our democracy and its ideals”.
Biden said she was “an American hero, a giant of legal doctrine, and a relentless voice in the pursuit of that highest American ideal: Equal Justice Under Law”.
In Washington, hundreds of tearful mourners laid flowers in front of the Supreme Court, where the diminutive Ginsburg sat for 27 years – even taking arguments and issuing opinions from her hospital bed after repeated bouts of illness over the past two years.
US flags flew at half-mast on each side of the court building. People lit candles on the steps of the court while others held flags.
Among the notably young crowd was Erin Drumm, a student at the Catholic University of America.
“I came here because I think RBG represents everything that America should stand for,” the 19-year-old said. “She represents the freedom to choose and respect for science and other people regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity or religion.”
One placard on the court steps read: “We love you Ruthie Bear.”
Ginsburg anchored the court’s liberal faction, whittled to four by two Trump appointments since 2017.
The appointment of a sixth conservative justice could lead to a court that would potentially remove abortion rights, strengthen the powers of business, and water down rights provided to minorities.
Within minutes of the news of her death, the enormous political battle had begun – with Biden warning Trump had no right to name a successor so close to the November 3 election.
Democrats are expected to fight tough to force a delay – an uphill battle given the control Republicans have on the Senate, which must approve any nominee.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ginsburg was a law-school star when women didn’t study law, and a law professor with a powerful impact on the establishment of rights for women and minorities.
Ginsburg’s death gives Trump the opportunity to tilt the court to the right, potentially for decades, with media reporting that a new nomination could be quick.
But it also has the potential to mobilise voters on the Democratic side.
Trump said in August he would have no qualms about naming a new justice so close to the election, and last week unveiled 20 names of possible choices, all deeply conservative.
Drawing a line in the sand on Friday, Biden warned, “The voters should pick the president, and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider.”