WASHINGTON — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery on Friday to remove two nodules from her left lung, according to Kathleen Arberg, a Supreme Court spokeswoman. The nodules were discovered during tests following a fall in November in which Ginsburg fractured her ribs.
The surgery, a pulmonary lobectomy, took place at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
According to the justice’s thoracic surgeon, Dr. Valerie W. Rusch, the nodules removed during surgery were found to be malignant, Arberg said in a statement.
After the surgery, she added, “there was no evidence of any remaining disease” and “scans performed before surgery indicated no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body.”
“Currently, no further treatment is planned,” Arberg said, “Justice Ginsburg is resting comfortably and is expected to remain in the hospital for a few days.”
After such surgeries, medical experts said, some patients may experience difficulty breathing when exercising or walking distances.
Ginsburg, 85, is the senior member of the court’s four-member liberal wing. She has repeatedly vowed to stay on the court as long as her health holds and she stays mentally sharp. In a 2013 interview, she said she loved her work and intended to continue “as long as I can do the job full-steam, and that, at my age, is not predictable.”
Ginsburg has been treated for cancer twice before, attributing her survival partly to the medical care she received at the National Institutes of Health.
“Ever since my colorectal cancer in 1999, I have been followed by the NIH,” she said in the 2013 interview. “That was very lucky for me because they detected my pancreatic cancer at a very early stage” in 2009.
She has broken ribs twice, in 2012 and in November. In 2014, she underwent a heart procedure.
She has proved resilient in the aftermath of those episodes. After her most recent fall, she was back on the bench to hear arguments during the Supreme Court’s two-week sitting that began on Nov. 26.
The new tumors could be primary lung cancers, meaning they originated in the lung. Or they could be growths that spread to her lung from cancer in another organ.
“When you have two lesions in the lung, it usually means it came from someplace else,” said Dr. Raja Flores, chairman of thoracic surgery at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. “It’s probably something that spread from the pancreas to the lungs.”
That Ginsberg is alive 10 years after being treated for pancreatic cancer — which is often rapidly fatal — indicates that she probably had a relatively slow-growing form of the disease. Therefore, Flores said, he expected that the tumors in her lungs would also tend to be slow-growing, what he calls “turtles.”
Testing on the tissue removed during surgery will determine the diagnosis, he said.
Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn in 1933, graduated from Cornell in 1954, and began law school at Harvard. After moving to New York with her husband, she transferred to Columbia, where she earned her law degree.
She taught at Rutgers and Columbia and was a leading courtroom advocate of women’s rights before joining the court. As director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, she brought a series of cases before the court that helped establish constitutional protections against sex discrimination.
Her litigation strategy invited comparison to that of Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was the architect of the civil rights movement’s incremental legal attack on racial discrimination before he joined the court.
She was appointed to the court by President Clinton in 1993. At the court these days, she moves slowly but asks sharp questions based on an assured command of the pertinent legal materials and factual record.
During the Obama administration, some liberals urged Ginsburg to step down so that President Obama could name her successor. She rejected the advice.
“I think it’s going to be another Democratic president,” she told The Washington Post in 2013. “The Democrats do fine in presidential elections; their problem is they can’t get out the vote in the midterm elections.”
President Trump, whose election proved her wrong, has been critical of Ginsburg, saying in 2016 that “her mind is shot” and suggesting that she resign. His sharp words came after Ginsburg criticized Trump in a series of interviews. She later said she had made a mistake in publicly commenting on a candidate and promised to be more “circumspect” in the future.
Ginsburg was the subject of a recent documentary, and a dramatic film about her, “On the Basis of Sex,” opens next week.
Trump has appointed two members to the Supreme Court, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, moving it considerably to the right. Should he name Ginsburg’s replacement, Republican appointees would outnumber Democratic ones by a 6-to-3 margin.