Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Image of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Release Date: 
October 27, 2015
Dey Street Books
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“reminds us how fortunate we have been that Ruth Ginsburg came our way at the right time.”

The United States Supreme Court—the co-equal third branch of the federal government—remains a mystery to most Americans. Except when a president nominates a new justice and the nation’s attention is focused on the Senate confirmation process, people know little about how the Court works and who these men and women are who enjoy such extraordinary power. Fewer than one in five Americans can name any member of the Court.

Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik have offered the reading public the opportunity to get to know one remarkable justice of the Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They call her—as others have—the “notorious RBG,” a combination of the name of the rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.” with Justice Ginsburg’s initials, “RBG.”

The authors do not claim that their delightful book, filled with pictures, cartoons and clever writing, is a neutral academic analysis of the life’s work of Justice Ginsburg. It is instead an abidingly affectionate weltschrift. Their love for the octogenarian is palpable. This is one reason the book succeeds so well. In a time when harsh and belittling criticism appears to be the norm in our public discourse, it is a relief to find a text where the plaudits flow.

Ruth “Kiki” Bader is a Brooklynite. She was born into a Jewish immigrant family where success was expected, but only as a result of indefatigable effort. A graduate of Cornell University, the future justice starred at Harvard Law School at a time when the presence of women in the class was an oddity. (Some faculty held “Ladies Day” when they would call on the few women in the class and berate them.)

She transferred to Columbia Law School to be with her husband, Marty Ginsburg, a brilliant tax lawyer and an equally excellent chef, and again finished at the top of her class. Despite her splendid academic record, however, law firms would not hire the future justice. Instead, they asked her about her typing skills. She secured a faculty position at the progressive Rutgers Law School, which thirty years later would name its great hall in honor of the justice. (Using a baseball analogy, the Rutgers dean explained that Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hall was, in fact, “the Hall that Ruth built.”) She later returned to Columbia Law School as its first tenured female professor. From her academic positions, she was able to pursue a career as a litigator for women’s rights that would make her famous and make all of us freer.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that opponents have always underestimated Ruth Ginsburg. A petite and shy woman with her hair pulled back, she methodically orchestrated a legal attack on the status of women as second-class citizens. Using creativity and legal skills, she meticulously constructed a foundation of precedent using the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union as the base of operations.

Justice Ginsburg understood that her fight for women’s rights was also a battle for men’s rights. She briefed, argued and won cases before the Supreme Court. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia where she served for thirteen years before President Bill Clinton nominated her as the second woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court that Justice Ginsburg joined was a far cry from the progressive Court she learned about in law school and that she argued before as an advocate. As a result of appointments by Republican presidents, the Court had turned decidedly conservative. Much of the precedent of the Warren Court seemed to be in jeopardy.

Justice Ginsburg forged alliances within the nine-member Court to preserve as much of the precedent as was possible, and, when necessary, to speak out loudly in dissent. Some who would play such a role would be embittered. Ginsburg was not, having learned from her years as an advocate that you do not have the privilege of selecting those who would decide your cases. Willing to compromise in order to win the votes of four other justices, Ginsburg won more than her share.

One remarkable aspect of life on the Supreme Court was the personal relationships developed among the men and women who served together. While one would expect that friendships would bloom among justices who shared a common judicial philosophy, Ruth Ginsburg became closest friends with Justice Antonin Scalia, whose judicial style and personal demeanor was the polar opposite of Justice Ginsburg. They enjoyed a common interest in the opera, and, from that lodestone, they developed a mutual respect and affection. It is certainly an odd couple.

Justice Ginsburg stands at the gates to defend an America where all persons are part of “we, the people” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. A role model for all who would protect and defend our individual and group rights, she has earned our abiding appreciation. This book reminds us how fortunate we have been that Ruth Ginsburg came our way at the right time.