Have you heard of the blog “Notorious R.B.G.” ? That is the tongue-in-cheek complimentary name tag for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has been making news for years with her oral dissents on significant 5-4 decisions rendered by the conservative majority. Oral dissents are rare and hers have been important since she is the oldest member at 81 years and known for her incisive legal thinking and oratory. Perhaps you have seen the formal portrait of the nine justices . She looks like a tiny bird perched next to the substantial bulk of Justice Anthony Kennedy in the front row.
A “Notorious R.B.G.” book is coming out, written by Shana Knizhnik who created the blog and Irin Carmon of MSNBC. Carin says, “ The kind of raw excitement that surrounds her is palpable. There’s a counter-intuitiveness. We have a particular vision of someone who’s a 350 pound rapper. And she’s this tiny Jewish grandmother. She doesn’t look like our vision of power, but she’s so formidable, so unapologetic, and a survivor in every sense of the word.”
Her physical strength has become legendary. Justice Antonin Scalia, the leader of the conservatives and one of her best friends, recounts the time they both were invited to lecture on the French Riviera . “She went off parasailing! This little skinny thing, you’d think she’d never come down.” Ginsburg still works out twice a week at the Supreme Court gym with her personal trainer. At home, she does daily stretching exercises at night. She has survived colon cancer in l999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009. Both recoveries went smoothly and she returned to the bench in record time after surgeries. In 2014, a stent was placed in one of her arteries on a Wednesday. The Court’s public information officer told reporters that Ginsburg “expects to be on the bench on Monday.”
Ginsburg graduated from Cornell University and began her law studies as one of nine women admitted to Harvard Law School out of a class of 500 in 1956. An oft told story relates how she and the other women students were invited by the Dean to dinner. During conversation, he asked them how they justified taking the place of a man in the class. Ginsburg was taken aback, but replied that her husband Marty was also a law student and it was important for a wife to understand her husband’s work. In later years, Ginsburg said about the Dean, “He was a wonderful man but he had no sense of humor.” The years at Harvard were very challenging . Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer. As he recovered, Ruth brought him notes from his classes and typed up his papers while she continued her own classes and took care of Jane, their toddler. At graduation, Ginsburg achieved the Harvard Law Review.
The early decades of her legal career were spent as an advocate for women’s rights as a constitutional principle. She became well known for her legal skills and was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to serve as an Appeals Court Judge. She served for 13 years with distinction from 1980 to 1993. At that time, a vacancy appeared on the Supreme Court and President Bill Clinton nominated her as the second woman Justice after Sandra Day O’Connor. There was a vigorous confirmation hearing where Ginsburg declined to tell the Senators how she would vote on certain pertinent issues. She was confirmed by the full Senate by a vote of 96 to 3. She has served since with distinction and is recognized as the leader of the liberal wing along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg had been married for 56 years when he died in 2010. She has a daughter, a son and four grandchildren. She is very active and travels to accept awards and give speeches. In February at the New York City Bar, she introduced Gloria Steinem who delivered the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law. Several weeks before, at a meeting of the Association of American Law Schools, Ginsburg introduced Professor Herma Hill Kay, recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award. As the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court with a long remarkable career, she has received many honors over the years.
Because of her age and recurrent health issues, Justice Ginsburg has often been queried about retirement plans. Since she is the leader of the liberal wing, observers have raised the prospect that Obama, who has appointed two liberals, would be able to appoint a third. She used to answer by citing Louis Brandeis who left the bench at 82. In January, when the question was raised, she said, “John Paul Stevens didn’t step down until he was 90.” Her tenacity and brilliant work appear to have captured the imagination of a myriad of supporters and fans. Coffee mugs and T-shirts have her picture on them. There’s an R.B.G. portrait available as a tattoo for your arm, and a baby costume of her for Halloween. “Justice Ginsburg Explains Everything You Need to Know about Religious Liberty in Two Sentences” is sold on Twitter. She has become an admired public icon, especially among women.
On January 20, 2015, President Barack Obama gave his State of The Union Address to the joint session of Congress. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was seated in the front row with the other Justices and the TV cameras caught her dozing. The next morning, one of her grandchildren called her and exclaimed, “Bubbe, you were sleeping at the State of the Union!” She told a reporter that she had wine with dinner before the speech, but the main reason was that she had been up throughout the previous night writing an opinion on an important case. “My pen was hot!” Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be 81 years old, but she is not ready to retire from The Supreme Court.