CNN Films’ “RBG” chronicles the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Watch tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died at age 87 on Friday, reached the heights of power at her own pace, always recalibrating the time she put to family and her pioneering career.
“There is no man, no woman, who has it all,” she remarked in one interview with me as we sat in her oak-paneled chambers filled with contemporary art. “Life just isn’t that way.”
In my last one-on-one session in her chambers, in January 2020 as a fire crackled, she had more pressing health concerns on her mind: “I’m cancer free. That’s good.” A year earlier she had undergone lung cancer surgery and, a few months after that, had endured a second pancreatic cancer scare.
For nearly two decades, Ginsburg permitted me to visit her private office to gather information for books I wrote about the Supreme Court and for my daily journalism work. Justices rarely open their doors to reporters, and I never took these sessions for granted. The nine members of the bench operate behind layers of security and a desire for secrecy as they decide the law of the land. Some justices go to great lengths to control their public images.
But Ginsburg was generous with the time she gave me, and she became more open over the years. She spoke most readily about the women’s rights issues that brought her national attention as an American Civil Liberties Union advocate in the 1970s. In time, she offered thoughts on other legal issues, the political dilemmas of the day and her personal dealings with her colleagues.
She addressed how liberals had wanted her to retire while President Barack Obama was still in office and recounted a private lunch with him at the White House.
Our most politically charged conversation came in July 2016, when I asked her if she had had second thoughts about her quips on possibly moving to New Zealand if Donald Trump won the presidency. Her remarks, which had been published by other news organizations before my visit, were drawing criticism for breaching judicial temperament.
Rather than back down, Ginsburg escalated. “He’s a faker,” she told me. “He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.” This criticism of Trump, published on CNN, ratcheted up complaints from the right and left that she had violated judicial decorum by expressing her views on the presidential race. Candidate Trump called on her to resign. “Her mind is shot,” he declared on Twitter.
A few days later, Ginsburg issued a statement saying she regretted speaking so candidly.
About a year ago, in August 2019, following her fourth cancer ordeal, we were on the same plane as she traveled to Buffalo, New York, for her first appearance after undergoing radiation for newly discovered pancreatic cancer. Waiting for takeoff, she worked on a draft of the speech she was to deliver.
She had just completed radiation treatment but did not want to cancel the commitment. The old friend who had persuaded her to schedule the University of Buffalo visits had recently died. Ginsburg did not want to pull out because of her own health problems. Within weeks that fall, she followed up with scheduled appearances in Washington; New York; Little Rock, Arkansas; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Chicago.
Ginsburg wanted to stay in the public eye as much as possible. A little over a decade earlier, when she was being treated for her first occurrence of pancreatic cancer, she explained the importance of being visible. In the middle of difficult radiation treatment, she chose to attend Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress. At the time, February 2009, she was the lone female justice on the bench.
“First, I wanted people to see that the Supreme Court isn’t all male,” Ginsburg told me afterward. “I also wanted them to see I was alive and well, contrary to that senator who said I’d be dead within nine months.” (She was referring to the late Sen. Jim Bunning, a Kentucky Republican who had predicted her cancer was so serious it likely would kill her.)
Ginsburg possessed a cheeky humor but was never brazen. She spoke slowly, with long pauses between sentences. In her chambers, bookshelves and tables were filled with family photos and mementos of her legal milestones, which included arguing six cases before the Supreme Court as a women’s rights lawyer.
She used a special cupboard for the elaborate collars and jabots she wore over her black robe. Off the bench, she dressed in colorful designer dresses, jackets and shawls. She enjoyed fashion and sometimes talked about the boutiques she had visited in her travels.
As a lawyer and justice, Ginsburg was exacting. She also admitted when she was wrong. And as a working mother, she never presented herself as perfect.
When daughter Jane was born in 1955, Ginsburg said she was afraid to pick her up. “I was scared to death of her,” she told me in a 2012 conversation. “My natural reaction to Jane was that she would break.”
It was during that interview that Ginsburg rejected the assertion of commentators who declared that men, but not women, could “have it all” in the realms of home and work.
Neither men nor women could have all they wanted, she said, at any one time in life. Ginsburg’s mantra, instead, was: All in good time. “What you do appreciate at my distance,” she said as she was nearing age 80, “is that the time during which child care is a major part of your life is relatively brief.”
Learning from O’Connor, wanting to ‘strangle’ Scalia
My interviews with Ginsburg began two decades ago as I began researching a 2005 biography of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice. Ginsburg became the second woman on the bench, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Ginsburg described how O’Connor had reacted when Ginsburg sought her advice regarding the first opinion then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist had assigned her to write. Usually the first assignment for a new justice is a relatively easy unanimous case, but Rehnquist gave Ginsburg a complicated pension dispute.
“Sandra, how can he do this to me?” Ginsburg said to O’Connor.
“Ruth, you just do it,” O’Connor answered bluntly, “and get your opinion in circulation before he makes the next set of assignments.”
As Ginsburg related the story, she said of the no-nonsense O’Connor: “That is so typical Sandra.” O’Connor, who grew up on a ranch, exuded determination in all things. She had been an Arizona state legislator before becoming a judge and had the distinction of being the first female majority leader of any state Senate nationwide. Like Ginsburg, who raised two children, O’Connor managed her career and motherhood, with three sons.
But the women differed in style and legal substance, and Ginsburg sometimes marveled that she, a Brooklyn-born liberal, had forged a deep friendship on the bench with Arizona Republican O’Connor.
In our early interviews, Ginsburg spoke readily about Justice Antonin Scalia, another one of my book subjects. Ginsburg and “Nino” had become close when first serving together on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. They were ideological opposites but often exchanged drafts of opinions as they worked out arguments. They traveled together, shared a love for opera and celebrated New Year’s Eve at an annual dinner with spouses.
As dear as Scalia was to Ginsburg, he became a thorn in the side of O’Connor. It perturbed him that the conservative Reagan appointee searched for a middle ground on the law. After O’Connor balked at striking down abortion rights in a 1989 case, he said her rationale “cannot be taken seriously.”
Ginsburg told me, “Nino, in my view, sometimes does go overboard. It would be better if he dropped things like: ‘This opinion is not to be taken seriously.’ He might have been more influential here if he did not do that.”
“I love him,” she added of Scalia. “But sometimes I’d like to strangle him.”
Actually, Ginsburg initially said she wanted to “wring his neck,” but she quickly amended the phrase, perhaps thinking it sounded too aggressive. She often repeated her mother’s adage that she should always act like a lady even as she spoke her own mind.
Scalia was a constant topic for us, particularly from 2006 to 2009, when I was focused on his biography. “There are few of us who have such confidence that we are right,” she declared of Scalia’s approach to the law and life.
During this period, Ginsburg was the only woman on the bench. O’Connor had retired in January 2006, and Sonia Sotomayor, the third female justice, did not join the high court until August 2009, appointed by Obama.
Ginsburg was missing O’Connor in these years, particularly during the justices’ closed-door sessions known as “the conference,” when they privately discuss which appeals to hear and how to rule on cases after oral arguments are held.
“At the conference, she spoke long before I did,” Ginsburg said, referring to O’Connor’s seniority and the traditional order of the nine justices at the table. “She is not an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other hand person.”
Ginsburg recalled that her own views were sometimes discounted in the justices’ sessions, in the same vein as when she was a young lawyer. “I don’t know how many meetings I attended in the ’60s and the ‘70s, where I would say something, and I thought it was a pretty good idea. … Then somebody else would say exactly what I said. Then people would become alert to it, respond to it.”
“It can happen even in the conferences in the court,” she continued in this spring 2009 interview, “when I will say something – and I don’t think I’m a confused speaker – and it isn’t until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on that point.” Some of her male colleagues later told me they were surprised by her comments.
On occasion, readers questioned whether Ginsburg was trying to send a message to the other justices through me. I brushed off that suggestion. Ginsburg was able to speak her mind and skilled at persuasion. And she never knew for certain when anything she told me would be published.
One such incident occurred in spring 2009, when I wrote about Ginsburg’s views of a then-pending case involving an eighth-grade girl who had been strip-searched for the drug ibuprofen at her Arizona school. I brought the dispute up with Ginsburg because of the frustration she had displayed at oral arguments when her colleagues minimized the girl’s ordeal.
“They have never been a 13-year-old girl. It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I don’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood. … Maybe a 13-year-old boy in a locker room doesn’t have that same feeling about his body. But a girl who’s just at the age where she is developing, whether or has developed a lot …. Or … has not developed at all (might be) embarrassed about that.”
In the end, the majority ruled in the case of Safford Unified School District v. Redding that the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
Changes at the court
Over the past decade, Ginsburg’s work and home life underwent significant changes. Most personally, her husband of 56 years, Martin, died after a struggle with cancer. “I miss Marty enormously,” she later told me. “I think of him 100 times a day.”
Ginsburg also became the leader of the left wing of the court in 2010, as Justice John Paul Stevens retired. She embraced that role, operating more strategically with her colleagues on the left and writing stronger dissents for that bloc. She said she felt a stronger sense of mission. “I know that’s what he would have wanted,” she said of Marty.