NEW YORK — A framed command from the Torah, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” hangs over the office doorway of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
According to Jane Sherron De Hart, author of “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life,” the judge’s Russian-Jewish immigrant parents — particularly her mother Celia — instilled a strong sense of Judaism in their daughter.
“Celia was a proto-feminist, determined to tell her daughter about Jewish women of valor. Not so much the biblical women, like Ruth and Rebecca, but women who were Jewish and American, like Lillian Wall and Emma Lazarus. People who accomplished things as Jewish Americans,” said De Hart.
De Hart spent 15 years researching and writing the book, the first full biography of the 107th Supreme Court justice, which chronicles the efforts of one woman as she reaches the apex of her professional accomplishment.
But De Hart didn’t set out to write a biography. At first the professor emerita of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, planned to focus on Ginsburg’s late 1960s litigation strategy. She was interested in examining how Ginsburg tried to achieve gender equality through the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Ginsburg granted De Hart access to her litigation archives, and six interviews followed.
It was then that De Hart decided to do a full biography, which she wrote with Ginsburg’s cooperation. The book also includes interviews with the justice’s late husband Marty, her children, her friends, her ACLU associates and her former classmates (including those from elementary school, James Madison High School, Cornell University, Harvard and Columbia Law Schools).
Of the 114 justices who have served on the court, Ginsburg is one of only four women. Today her face adorns tote bags, T-shirts and socks. She’s the subject of internet memes, a documentary, a Hollywood film and several books. It’s safe to say no justice has reached the cultural iconic status as that of this 85-year-old.
“She has a dry sense of humor about it, but she doesn’t like to hear people gush over her,” De Hart said.
The following interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
To what degree do you think Judaism has influenced Ginsburg’s love of law and justice?
Her parents were immigrants who came from Orthodox backgrounds, but were less so themselves. At one point we had a long discussion about whether to describe her parents as secular Jews. They weren’t secular — they observed all the holidays — but they weren’t extremely devout.
However, her mother was determined to bring her up as a good Jew and a good American. She’s always identified very strongly as a Jew and I think that’s where she gets her sense of justice, her sense of community, and her sense of compassion. Inclusiveness is extremely important to her, extending rights of citizenship to minorities that are legally entitled to them, but aren’t always granted them.
“Tikkun olam” is a phrase that means a great deal to her, it’s something she spoke about when she received [the Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award] in Tel Aviv last year.
Did writing about Ginsburg affect the way you see the Supreme Court now? And what is the biggest change you see in Ginsburg since her appointment in 1993?
I became more critical of the court.
As far as the justice, one of the biggest changes is the way her language changes. It became much less neutral and dispassionate as she developed this gift of language.
During oral arguments for marriage equality one of the lawyers who opposed gay marriage said there are civil unions, so there wasn’t a need for marriage equality. And Ginsburg said civil unions are like a “skim milk marriage.” That went viral.
She wrote a really pointed and strong dissent on the voting rights case, [Shelby County v. Holder] that said casting out the part of the act that provides protections is like tossing out your umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm. That went viral.
And that’s what prompted a law student to come up with the Notorious RBG nickname.
Which leads to this next question — as her biographer, what do you make of her transformation into not only a legal icon, but also a pop culture icon? Her face is everywhere, Kate McKinnon even does an impression of her on Saturday Night Live.
Ironically, she’s even on Christmas tree ornaments.
When the Notorious RBG came out her clerks showed it to her and she didn’t mind. Ruth’s granddaughter was quite entranced and Ginsburg ordered some t-shirts to give to people.
For someone who earlier in their career was known as a workaholic, who did not even make small talk, she responded with humor. When someone asked her how she felt being compared to Notorious B.I.G., she said, ‘Well, we’re both from Brooklyn.’
She’s used it to great effect, particularly with younger people. She gives a lot of talks and uses it to emphasize her values that are important to her.
A few months ago Ginsburg fell and broke her ribs, and then she had surgery to remove two malignant growths in her lung. A great portion of the American population reveres her, and yet some have said it’s not wise to elevate her to such status. Do you agree?
She is the leader of the liberal court. If there were few more liberal justices on the court it would be a healthier situation in that people would feel there is a little less riding on her.
But all the things that have happened under Mitch McConnell — especially regarding Merrick Garland — have exacerbated the situation tremendously. In a way she’s become symbolic of the importance of having liberal justices.
How have women’s rights progressed during her time on the court?
Women have not made significant gains in this period at all, and their rights are even more endangered under Trump. Women’s rights are hanging by a thread. She’s very much concerned about what has happened to reproductive rights. She’s concerned about things like the Republicans not reauthorizing funding for the Violence Against Women Act. She’s very much aware of all these things.
What insight into the justice did you get from your interviews with her husband Marty?
I asked him if Ruth had changed at all once she became a Supreme Court justice. He said she stayed the same, but he also said that they weren’t a self-reflective family. I think she is a little more self-reflective than he was.
He was also her protector. Since he’s no longer here she speaks out a little more for herself on a personal level. She always spoke out. It’s something I see with my own friends who are married to high profile people. When one of the spouses goes they come into their own person a little more. I think that has happened with Ruth.