By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a prominent liberal who at age 85 is the oldest U.S. Supreme Court justice, was hospitalized on Thursday after fracturing three ribs in a fall the night before at her office at the court, a court spokeswoman said.
Ginsburg, appointed in 1993 by Democratic former President Bill Clinton as only the second woman to serve on the high court, initially went home after the fall, but experienced discomfort overnight and went to George Washington University Hospital on Thursday morning, court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said in a statement.
Tests showed Ginsburg fractured three ribs on her left side and she was admitted for observation and treatment, Arberg added. The court is not scheduled to hear its next arguments in cases until Nov. 26.
Ginsburg, who made her name as an advocate for women's rights, is one of the court's four liberals. The court's 5-4 conservative majority was restored last month when the Senate confirmed Republican President Donald Trump's appointee Brett Kavanaugh after a contentious nomination process in which Kavanaugh denied a sexual assault allegation dating to the 1980s.
If Ginsburg were unable to continue serving, Trump likely would move swiftly to replace her with a conservative, further shifting the court to the right. A potentially dominant 6-3 conservative majority would have major consequences for issues including abortion, the death penalty, voting rights, gay rights, religious liberty, business litigation and presidential powers.
As the oldest justice, Ginsburg is closely watched for any signs of deteriorating health, even though she has bounced back from previous medical issues.
Ginsburg has fallen twice before at her home, in 2012 and 2013, leading to rib injuries. She was treated in 1999 for colon cancer and again in 2009 for pancreatic cancer, both serious forms of cancer, but did not miss any argument sessions either time.
In 2014, doctors placed a stent in her right coronary artery to improve blood flow after she reported discomfort following routine exercise. She was released from a hospital the next day.
Trump went to the court on Thursday for a formal ceremony welcoming Kavanaugh to the nation's highest court. Kavanaugh was sworn in to the lifetime job last month.
The president sat with first lady Melania Trump at the front of the marble-walled courtroom near the justices' mahogany bench, and made no public remarks.
Some leading congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and outspoken Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, attended. The event came a day after Trump fired Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Matthew Whitaker, who Trump named as Sessions' interim replacement, participated in the ceremony.
Ginsburg called Trump an egotistical "faker" when he was running for president in 2016, in an unusual foray into politics by a Supreme Court justice. Trump responded, saying her "mind is shot" and she should resign. Ginsburg later expressed regret over her remarks, saying "judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office."
Ginsburg is a hero among many U.S. liberals, sometimes called "The Notorious R.B.G" in a nickname based on the late American rapper The Notorious B.I.G. A documentary film about her, called "RBG," was released earlier this year. A biographical film about her, called "On the Basis of Sex" and starring Felicity Jones, is being released next month.
Ginsburg has helped buttress equality rights during her time on the high court, including in sex discrimination cases, and has been a champion of abortion rights and gay rights. In 2010, after the retirement of more senior liberals, she became the court's voice of liberalism on behalf of women, racial minorities and the poor and disenfranchised.
Ginsburg voiced support for the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct after Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault by a university professor, saying that unlike in her youth, "women nowadays are not silent about bad behaviour."
Trump has already named two members of the court, adding conservative federal appeals court judges Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch, who was confirmed by the Senate last year. The court's other liberal justices are Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Breyer, 80, is the court's second-oldest justice.
Trump selected Kavanaugh in July to replace long-serving conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired. Other candidates he considered for the vacancy included: Thomas Hardiman, who serves on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Raymond Kethledge and Amul Thapar of the Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Amy Coney Barrett of the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Kavanaugh's Senate confirmation process convulsed the nation just weeks before Tuesday's congressional elections in which Trump's fellow Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives but expanded their majority in Senate, which has sole authority over judicial and Supreme Court nominations.
On Wednesday, Trump credited the fight over confirming Kavanaugh, who was strongly opposed by Democrats, for the gains in the Senate.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry and Will Dunham)