'Feeling fine' at 85: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fends off retirement

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg intends to remain on the court as long as she's capable.

By RICHARD WOLF / USA TODAY
March 15, 2018 13:29
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (photo credit: COLLECTION OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STAT)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) - In Utah, she received a "hero's welcome." In Rhode Island, she was greeted with "rapturous applause." Here in the nation's capital, she captivated a "reverential crowd."

But the press clippings from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's most recent spate of public appearances -- some would call it a tour de force -- included a more important finding for her many fans. She is "feeling fine."

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As she turns 85 this week, Ginsburg is sending a message to President Trump and Republicans in Congress: She intends to remain on the court as long as she's capable. That could prevent them from nominating and confirming her successor.

She's also adding new layers to a level of fame that a career spent inside classrooms and courtrooms rarely causes. Rather than shirk the spotlight, as most justices do, Ginsburg has embraced the adulation as a sign that her outspoken brand of jurisprudence is back in vogue.

As the leader of the high court's liberal wing, her diminutive appearance belies her aggressiveness on the bench and work ethic in chambers. She has been first to pounce on the plaintiff's attorney in more than half the court's oral arguments this term. She's written three of its 13 decisions, tied for the most so far. She's hired law clerks through June 2020.

The attention paid to her work ethic is overshadowed, however, by her media (and social media) profile. She's the subject of a forthcoming feature film, a recently released documentary, a comic opera, a workout regimen, a Tumblr blog, a "Saturday Night Live" routine, several books and an assortment of T-shirts and tote bags.

And since the year began, she has outpaced her younger, better-fed colleagues in public appearances, at one point making nine in the space of three weeks at law schools, synagogues -- even the Sundance Film Festival.

"I am soon to be 85," she marveled last month at New York Law School, "and everyone wants to take their picture with me!"

Those would be the reverential crowds, with their hero's welcomes and rapturous applause.

Some 1,400 turned out to see her at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington. Those who couldn't joined more than 250 watch parties across the country.

At a Columbia University women's conference in New York, she strode on stage to the tune of "Notorious B.I.G." by the artist of the same name, from whom Ginsburg's fans created the tumblr "Notorious R.B.G."

In Providence, R.I., on the same evening Trump was delivering his State of the Union address attended by four of her colleagues, Ginsburg was greeted by more than 1,000 fans at Temple Beth-El. Earlier in the day, she became the eighth justice to appear at Roger Williams University School of Law in nearby Bristol, but the first to bring the house down.

"This was a completely different thing" from the other appearances, Dean Michael Yelnosky said. "She is a cultural icon. I venture to say she may be the most popular Supreme Court justice who's ever lived."

'Like a rock star'


Most Supreme Court justices lead relatively cloistered lives. But some have gone out of their way to speak at public events, either to advance a cause or simply fulfill invitations. The late Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg's unlikely BFF on the court, was a hero for legal conservatives. Justice Sonia Sotomayor is a heroine for ethnic minorities.

At her advanced age, as a two-time cancer survivor, and with a target on her back -- Republicans want to fill her seat, and even some Democrats say she should have retired while Barack Obama was president -- Ginsburg seems intent on out-hustling everyone.

"It's fair to say that there are many people worried about her health, and some who were concerned that she didn't retire earlier, when President Obama would have had the opportunity to appoint her successor," said Jane Eisner, editor-in-chief of the Jewish magazine The Forward, who interviewed Ginsburg at her Washington event.

The justice's supporters want to see her in person, Eisner said, "to be reassured that she still is as clear-headed and as energetic as they wish her to be."

If they can't see her in person this year, there will be other opportunities. The documentary "RBG" premiered at the Sundance festival in January and will be opening in select theaters May 4. Besides learning about Ginsburg's legendary career advancing women's rights, viewers will be able to see her lift weights and perform planks.

Later this year, if all goes according to schedule, they'll be able to see Ginsburg as played by Felicity Jones in the feature film On the Basis of Sex. The flick tells the story of a Supreme Court gender discrimination case brought by Ginsburg and her late husband, Martin, in the 1970s.

If her recent travels are any indication, Ginsburg doesn't need big screen stardom for validation:

--In Rhode Island over two days in January, she starred at a university and a temple, chatted over lunch and dinner, and visited a federal district court.

Federal appeals court Senior Judge Bruce Selya provoked cheers when he said many hope she will outlast "at least the present administration."

--Over two days in New York, where observers felt she looked healthier than she had in years, Ginsburg filled events and even an overflow room -- "a very whirlwind schedule," New York Law School Professor Nadine Strossen said.

"The young people really see her as this kind of rock star," she said.

--In Philadelphia, Ginsburg also spoke at two events, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania and the National Constitution Center, while saving time to tour the National Museum of American Jewish History. She is the Supreme Court's longest-serving Jewish justice.

"The overwhelming impression Justice Ginsburg left from her visit is that she's operating at the height of her powers," the center's president, Jeffrey Rosen, said after interviewing her. "She was just operating on all cylinders."

--At the District of Columbia event, Ginsburg was asked point-blank when she plans to step down. Before she could respond, a voice from the audience shouted, "Never!"

"I haven't seen Supreme Court justices do a road tour, like a rock star," Eisner said. "She appears cognizant that this is a performance."

'Flaming feminist'

At nearly every event, Ginsburg was asked most often about the topic that has dominated her long career: gender equality. Her fame stems from her years as a self-described "flaming feminist litigator" with a string of Supreme Court victories.

--On the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment: "My hope is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars."

--On the dearth of women as law firm partners: "Instead of looking at the way it is, how about looking back to the way it was? There were no women partners. There were no women associates in most of the large law firms. In the ancient days when I entered law school, I was one of nine women in a class of over 500."

--On women in politics and public service: "The progress has been enormous, and that is what makes me hopeful for the future. The signs are all around us. I think in the elections in the fall of 2018, there will be more women running for office than ever before on every level -- local, state, federal."

--On prospects for an Equal Rights Amendment, which fell three states short of ratification in the 1970s, and which she would like to see in the Constitution: "I really am putting my faith in the millennials."

--On women running for president: "I think it was difficult for Hillary Clinton to get by the macho atmosphere prevailing during that campaign," she said of the 2016 race. "She was criticized in a way I think no man would have been criticized."
Then, perhaps recalling the controversy she created that year by calling Trump a "faker," she demurred.

"We should be careful," Ginsburg said, "about not getting too much into the political arena."

(c)2018 USA Today. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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