HARI SREENIVASAN: Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke countless barriers for women in the legal profession long before she was tapped by President Bill Clinton for the highest court in the land.
Now she has published a collection of her writings and speeches called, “My Own Words.”
For this latest addition to the “NewsHour” Bookshelf, Gwen Ifill sat down with Justice Ginsburg recently at the Supreme Court.
GWEN IFILL: Justice Ginsburg, thank you for speaking with us.
I want to start by — with a broader question than you even address in your book, which is, you’ve become something of a folk hero to some women. Did you see that coming?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG, U.S. Supreme Court: It is utterly amazing. Of course I didn’t see it coming.
And it was all the creation of a second-year student, second-year law student, at NYU. It came about this way. She was reading a court’s decision that invalidated a very significant part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
And she was angry. And then she remembered that I had said anger is a useless emotion. It doesn’t get you any place. Do something positive. So, she created this tumbler starting with my dissent, and then it took off into the wild blue yonder.
GWEN IFILL: You know, some people would say it’s about politics, but I wonder if it’s not also about your presence, your very existence on the court and the way that you write and the way that you sometimes take on your colleagues.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I would like to think so, but I certainly was given a tremendous boost into the public arena by the Notorious R.B.G.
When I was asked about it, I said, well, it’s exactly right, because Notorious B.I.G. and I had something in common?
You did? What?
We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.
GWEN IFILL: You ever consider being a rapper?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I don’t think I have that talent.
GWEN IFILL: Well, neither do I.
I want to talk to you about someone you give a lot of credit to in this book. And that is your late husband, Marty Ginsburg. And one of the things that someone said is that you would never have been on the court without him.
Do you agree with that?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It’s absolutely true.
One of my law clerks at the Court of Appeals said at the time that Clinton was considering who would be his first nominee to the court, he said, “You will be on the list, but you will be probably be around number 25, unless you do something to promote yourself.”
So, I’m not very good at promotion, but Marty was. And he was tireless in his effort to see that I would be the nominee.
GWEN IFILL: Just the way you write about, speak about Marty, it’s almost like a present tense presence in your life.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: He will be present in my life as long as I live. I have his portrait in my bedroom. And I look at it and say, “You would probably like what I am doing now.”
GWEN IFILL: Out of all the speeches and the writings that you have collected in this book, what do you get the most frequent questions about? What do young people, older people ask you?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: One question is, did you always want to be a judge, or, more exorbitantly, did you always want to be a Supreme Court justice?
I try to explain the way things were in the not-so-good-old-days. So, when I graduated from law school in 1959, there wasn’t a single woman on any federal bench. It wouldn’t be a realistic ambition for a woman to want to become a federal judge.
It wasn’t realistic until Jimmy Carter became our president. He looked around at the federal judiciary and said: That’s nice, but they all look like me. So, I am determined to appoint members of minority groups and women in numbers to the federal bench, so we will use the talent of all of the people of the United States, and not just some of them.
GWEN IFILL: I’m not sure everyone knows how extensive your interest in women’s issues, women’s rights were long before you got to the court. Is that something which this can also begin to illuminate?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes.
The book includes one of my many speeches about why we need an equal rights amendment.
GWEN IFILL: Do you feel that — as a liberal, that conservative women, men can identify with you as well?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: The label liberal or conservative, any — every time I hear that, I think of the great Gilbert and Sullivan song from “Iolanthe.”
It goes, every gal and every boy that’s born alive is either a little liberal or else a little conservative.
What do those labels mean? It depends on whose ox is being gored.
GWEN IFILL: You got into a little trouble for making a comment about Donald Trump this year. Do you still regret it?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I said what I had to say about that, and I will not address that subject again.
GWEN IFILL: That’s fair.
Let me ask you another question about what’s happening right now. Do you know Merrick Garland?
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes, I know Merrick quite, quite well.
He is now the chief judge of the court on which I served for many years. And he’s an expert in administrative law. So, I have read his writings.
I wish that the spirit that prevailed in 1993, when I was nominated, I wish that that could be restored. In 1993, the vote on me was 96 to 3. I was nominated on June 14. I was confirmed on August 3.
GWEN IFILL: It’s very different now.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes. But there was a true bipartisan spirit prevailing. Democrat and Republicans worked together, and they got things done.
GWEN IFILL: Everybody wonders whether you’re going to be ever done. You have moved the bar many different times.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes.
At first, I said I wanted to stay as long as Justice Brandeis did. He was appointed at the same age I was, 60. But he retired when he was 83, which I am. So, my answer is, I will do this job as long as I can do it full-steam.
And, at my age, that means you take it year by year, though I am confident that, this year, there will be no slowdown. What will be next year? I don’t know.
GWEN IFILL: None of us really knows, but we will be watching.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, thank you very much.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It was a pleasure.