The making of a judicial phenomenon: Ruth Bader Ginsburg marks 25 years on the bench

For more on Justice Ginsburg, watch CNN Films’ “RBG” on Sunday, September 9 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

CNN  — 

There is something in the current “Notorious RBG” fervor that offers the perfect paradox for a woman whose early career was marked by rejection and work in the trenches of anti-discrimination law.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s superstardom has not been fleeting, precisely because of what she did before and what she represents today.

She made the law review at both Harvard and Columbia law schools and graduated at the top of her class at Columbia. Yet she was rejected for the most prestigious judicial clerkships and spurned by law firms. It was not just that she was a woman. She was also a mother caring for a young daughter.

But that was nearly six decades ago, and on Friday, Ginsburg marks the 25th anniversary of her judicial oath on the US Supreme Court.

When she failed to land a law firm job, she turned to teaching, then became a women’s rights lawyer and eventually won a federal appeals court seat. As a Supreme Court justice since 1993, she has authored scores of opinions that have helped set the course of the law, particularly on equality rights. She wrote the landmark ruling that forced the state-run Virginia Military Institute to admit women.

Now it is her scorching dissents that draw most public attention.

Popular culture has embraced the RBG phenomenon, perhaps because the woman who crusaded against sex discrimination is now a vocal dissenter on a high court that is becoming increasingly conservative.

She is also an original member of what is today’s #MeToo movement, recounting her own experiences as a pathbreaking woman on campus and in the workforce.

The “Notorious RBG” meme, a play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., was created as a response to a 2013 dissent Ginsburg wrote when the court majority issued a milestone decision rolling back voting-rights protections. Ginsburg’s dissents continue to energize Democrats, at a time when Republicans control the executive and legislative branches of government and the Supreme Court moves rightward.

From films to action figures, the entertainment world has shown a fascination with the trailblazer who changed the course of women’s rights and at age 85 still pumps iron.

The documentary “RBG,” co-produced by CNN, has made $13.5 million at the box office, according to comScore, and will be broadcast next month on the network. Oscar nominee Felicity Jones will play her in a feature film, “On the Basis of Sex,” in December.

The justice said recently that she hopes to stay on the Supreme Court at least five more years, when she’ll be 90. She has survived two bouts with cancer, colorectal in 1999 and pancreatic in 2009.

Ginsburg’s celebrity might not have been predicted when President Bill Clinton chose her for the high court in summer 1993.

Then a 60-year-old federal appellate judge, she was not Clinton’s first choice. He was looking for a flashier appointee and initially tried to woo former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to the bench.

Ginsburg, with her large-rimmed glasses, hair tied back in a short ponytail, presented the picture of seriousness. She spoke of taking “measured motions” as a jurist. Supporters portrayed her as a night owl who spent hours hunched over law books and legal briefs, tepid coffee and prunes at hand. Her daughter created a little book titled “Mommy Laughed,” chronicling the few times it happened.

Once on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was a sharp questioner and meticulous opinion-writer. She leaned in but without the attention-getting style of the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, or gregarious longtime pal Antonin Scalia.

She was hardly a liberal in the mode of contemporary justices on the left: William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall or Harry Blackmun. But as the court changed over the years and became more conservative with each retirement, she found herself carrying the banner for the left.

It is the lesson of Ginsburg’s eight decades – marked by early loss and professional rejection – that life’s vicissitudes can open unexpected doors and bring new opportunities.

Now carrying a commercial tote bag with the words “I dissent,” she appreciates her icon status. But she still conveys a modest approach. When asked recently during a public appearance how she wanted to be remembered, she said, “As someone who did the best she could.”