Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Principles & Values

Supreme Court Justice (nominated by Pres. Clinton 1993)


Student teacher in European literature

In the fall of 1950, on the Cornell campus, RBG tried, and then dropped, student teaching. She preferred her European literature class with Vladimir Nabokov, then an unknown emigre who taught her to think carefully where each word should go. She chose government as her major and took an undergraduate class in constitutional law from the legendary professor Robert E. Cushman.

In her senior year, another professor, Marcus Singer, was hauled before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and indicted for refusing to name fellow members of a Marxist study group.

She'd begun working as a research assistant to Professor Cushman, helping him put together an exhibition on book burning, and here was censorship unfolding before her eyes. Cushman pointed out that lawyers had come to Singer's rescue. "I got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty good thing," RBG recalled, "because in addition to practicing a profession, you could do something good for your society.

Source: Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, p. 28-30 , Oct 27, 2015

RBG was "life partner" with husband despite 1950s stereotype

If RBG hoped for a world in which men and women were freed of stereotypes, with full and mutual participation at both work and home, she could look to her own enduring marriage as an example. It had sustained her even in the years where the answer elsewhere had always been no. "Fortunately, in my marriage, I didn't get second-class treatment," she said.

What was meant by "alternative," and what was hinted by RBG's use of the phrase "life partner" was a marriage in which the woman didn't lose herself and her autonomy, in which two humans shared their lives and goals on equal footing. It wasn't so common anywhere, least of all among people who came of age in the 1950s.

Source: Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, p. 97-8 , Oct 27, 2015

Reputation as a great dissenter began with Bush v. Gore

The case that helped turn RBG into a great dissenter was one she never liked talking about. Few of the justices relished discussing Bush v. Gore, the surreal and bitter case that put the fate of the U.S. presidency in their hands. That fiasco culminated on December 12, 2000, with the court halting Florida's vote recount and effectively handing Bush the presidency.

In an argument almost no one took seriously at the time and few have since, Kennedy and O'Connor's majority opinion said a recount would violate the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. It would supposedly "value one person's vote over that of another." The same words in the Constitution that had been used to desegregate schools, and which RBG had used to enshrine women's equality, were being used to shut down democracy.

Source: Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, p.128 , Oct 27, 2015

RBG learned life lessons from her hero, Eleanor Roosevelt

RBG survived the indignities of pre-feminist life mostly by deciding that anger was counterproductive. "This wonderful woman whose statue I have in my chambers, Eleanor Roosevelt, said, 'Anger, resentment, envy. These are emotions that just sap your energy," RBG says. "They're not productive and don't get you anyplace, so get over it.'" To be like RBG in dissent, save your public anger for when there's lots at stake and when you've tried everything else.

"Fight for the things that you care about," RBG advised young women, "but do it in a way that will lead others to join you." RBG always tells her clerks to paint the other side's arguments in the best light, avoiding personal insults. She is painstaking in presenting facts, on the theory that the truth is weapon enough.

Source: Notorious RBG, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, p.179 , Oct 27, 2015

Bush v. Gore: recount all votes in Florida

The Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court decision ordering manual recount of presidential election ballots. A majority agreed that the recount violated the Constitution's equal protection clause, since counting standards varied among counties. The decision effectively ended the presidential election, handing a victory to George W. Bush.
Source: InfoPlease.com on 2000 SCOTUS case Gore v. Bush , Dec 11, 2000

Profiled in "Jews in American Politics".

Ginsburg is profiled in the book "Jews in American Politics":

When one reads accounts of Jews in American politics, the common theme is that Jews have achieved prominence in art, literature, academia, certain businesses, and entertainment, but not in politics or government. The Jewish politician was the exception, not the rule.

In the last third of the 20th century, however, that pattern changed. By 2000, Jews had become as prominent in the political realm as they have been in other aspects of American life. And Jewish participation is accepted for the contributions these activists make, not because of their Jewishness. Nothing could symbolize this trend more cogently than the nomination of Joseph Lieberman for vice president in 2000 and the national reaction to his candidacy. [Lieberman says]:

Although politics was not exactly a Jewish profession, individual Jews did throw themsleves into the democratic process. Some were traditional politicians; others machine politicians. Many more, such as Emma Goldman and the radicals of the early 20th century, were inspired by the ideal that they had a duty to repair the world—Tikkun Olam.

Many reasons account for the broader representation of Jews in American civic life today. The forces of antisemitism have been relegated to the extreme margins of society, the principle of meritocracy has increasingly opened the doors of opportunity. Moreover, the idealism and purpose that were spawned by the movements for civil rights, opposition to the war in Vietnam, environmentalism, and other causes drew many Jewish Americans into the political arena. Jews are admonished tp help perfect the world by the ancient wisdom of Rabbi Tarfon, who tells us, “You are not required to complete the task, yet you are not free to withdaw from it.”

[This book] provides brief biographical sketches for more than 400 Jews who have played prominent roles in American political life. The roster provides much of the basic information that we felt was previously lacking in one place.
Source: Jews in American Politics, Sandy Maisels, ed., pp. xii-xxiii 01-JIAP0 on Jan 1, 2001

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Other Justices on Principles & Values: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on other issues:
Samuel Alito(since 2006)
Amy Coney Barrett(since 2020)
Stephen Breyer(since 1994)
Neil Gorsuch(since 2017)
Ketanji Brown Jackson(nominated 2022)
Elena Kagan(since 2010)
Brett Kavanaugh(since 2018)
John Roberts(since 2005)
Sonia Sotomayor(since 2009)
Clarence Thomas(since 1991)

Former Justices:
Merrick Garland(nominated 2016)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg(1993-2020)
Anthony Kennedy(1988-2018)
Antonin Scalia(1986-2016)
John Paul Stevens(1975-2010)
David Souter(1990-2009)
Sandra Day O'Connor(1981-2006)
William Rehnquist(1975-2005)

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Page last updated: Mar 07, 2022