Democrats and liberals have a nightmare vision of the Supreme Court's future: President Barack Obama is defeated for re-election next year and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 78 the oldest justice, soon finds her health will not allow her to continue on the bench.
The new Republican president appoints Ginsburg's successor, cementing conservative domination of the court, and soon the justices roll back decisions in favor of abortion rights and affirmative action.
But Ginsburg could retire now and allow Obama to name a like-minded successor whose confirmation would be in the hands of a Democratic-controlled Senate. "She has in her power the ability to prevent a real shift in the balance of power on the court," said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California at Irvine law school. "On the other hand, there's the personal. How do you decide to leave the United States Supreme Court?"
For now, Ginsburg's answer is, you don't.
There are few more indelicate questions to put to a Supreme Court justice, but Ginsburg has said gracefully, and with apparent good humor, that the president should not expect a retirement letter before 2015.
She will turn 82 that year, the same age Justice Louis Brandeis was when he left the court in 1939. Ginsburg, who is Jewish, has said she wants to emulate the court's first Jewish justice.
While declining an interview on the topic, Ginsburg pointed in a note to The Associated Press to another marker she has laid down, that she is awaiting the end of a traveling art exhibition that includes a painting that usually hangs in her office by the German emigre Josef Albers.