Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died aged 87, the US Supreme Court said on Friday, leaving a vacancy on the high court just weeks before the November presidential election.
Ginsburg, a liberal icon, was nominated to the court by Bill Clinton in 1993. The second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, she was famed for her groundbreaking work to advance equal rights for women.
Ginsburg died on Friday evening due to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was at home in Washington, surrounded by her family, the court said. In recent years, her health has deteriorated, and she suffered repeated bouts of illness or injury.
“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague.”
Her death sets up an intense political battle over her replacement on the US high court. Donald Trump has previously vowed to fill any vacancy that opened up this year.
After speaking at a campaign rally in Minnesota on Friday, Mr Trump expressed surprise when told of Ginsburg’s death by reporters.
“She just died?” he said. “I didn’t know that. She led an amazing life, what else can you say? Whether you agree or not . . . she led an amazing life.”
Republicans currently control the Senate by a 53-47 margin. Any appointee would need a simple majority to be confirmed, with Mike Pence, the vice-president, able to cast the deciding vote in case of a tie.
Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader, said on Friday he would seek to push through any nominee despite the upcoming election.
“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” he said in a statement.
Until Ginsburg’s passing, the court had a 5-4 conservative majority, including two Trump appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. A third Trump appointee would solidify conservative control of the court for decades to come, regardless of the outcome the presidential election.
In 2016, the Mr McConnell blocked President Barack Obama’s attempt to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia that year.
Mr McConnell cited the fact it was a presidential election year, but has argued that this time would be different because both the Senate and White House are in the hands of the same party.
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, on Friday said the empty seat should not be filled until after the election, using the same words Mr McConnell used in 2016.
“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” he said in a tweet.
Without the defections of four Senate Republicans, Democrats would be unable to prevent Mr Trump from installing a new justice. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, has previously said she would not support filling a vacancy this year.
Mr Trump successfully united conservatives behind him in 2016 by publishing a list of potential nominees for the Supreme Court seat kept open by Mr McConnell. He repeated that manoeuvre earlier this month in an attempt to boost his campaign.
The president ultimately appointed Mr Gorsuch, and later Mr Kavanaugh, to the court. Mr Kavanaugh’s confirmation battle was particularly bruising, as he faced allegations of sexual misconduct. He denied the claims.
Ginsburg had resisted calls to step down while the Democratic Mr Obama was in office, which would have allowed him to nominate her successor. In 2016 she predicted Hillary Clinton would defeat Mr Trump.
On Friday, National Public Radio reported that Ginsburg had dictated a statement to her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”