The Notorious R.B.G. (that’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg) comes to town

Photo by Tim Rummelhoff
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her Q&A session at the University of Minnesota Law School on Tuesday.

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are not supposed to make much news, other than when they rule on a case, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg met that requirement Tuesday in a funny, feisty but nonetheless news-free appearance at the University of Minnesota Law School.

Ginsburg, 81, gave no prepared remarks but responded to questions from U of M Law Professor Robert Stein, who is an old friend.

Perhaps the closest she came to news were her remarks about the future of the same-sex marriage. So far, most of the appellate courts that have ruled have struck down bans on such marriages, so the Supreme Court hasn’t had to take a case. Those who are interested in the future of the rulings should pay attention to the Sixth District, which will soon rule, and could create the controversy that will bring the Supreme Court into the picture. Noting the “remarkable change” in gay/lesbian  rights over recent years, she attributed it to the willingness of gay and lesbian Americans to “say who they are.”

In other matters, the audience of about 500 learned that Ginsburg:

  • Is aware of and seems to revel in the fact she is known to her fans as “The Notorious R.B.G.” based on a tumblr account of that name. The justice acknowledged that she has a supply of “Notorious R.B.G.” t-shirts, and during the Q and A with the audience, a young woman wearing such a t-shirt was recognized.
  • Said that the fact that the recent term of the court resulted in an unusually high portion (about 60 percent) of cases decided by unanimous rulings is “misleading,” because the members of the court often “agreed on the outcome but disagreed on how we got there.” She nonetheless described the court as “the most collegial place I’ve ever worked,” noting that before going out into public to hear arguments, every justice shakes hands with all of the others.
  • Talked about her dissent in the recent “Hobby Lobby” case, which allowed owners of a company to opt out of the abortion-related provisions of the Obamacare law, based on religious objections of the firms’ owners. The ruling’s “startling breadth” creates a “minefield” going forward, she said, because various religious sects hold such diverse, minority beliefs impacting health care (some sects reject blood transfusions, she said) that the ruling creates a great many ways for employers to opt out of a great many laws.
  • Remarked that the members of Congress, who enacted campaign-finance laws, “understand better than judges what money can buy,” and should perhaps be given more deference in allowing laws to deal with the “pernicious effects” of moneyed interests seeking to buy access and influence to lawmakers through campaign contributions.

Ginsburg said she very much welcomed the recent arrivals of two, younger female justices. She noted, archly, that when she and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor were the only two female justices, their colleagues would occasionally address them by one another’s names, even though they were in no way similar other than their gender.

Then O’Connor retired, leaving Ginsburg as the sole female, and, in pictures of the court, you would have all these large men and one tiny woman (Ginsburg is 5’1, slight and frail) “looking like I didn’t belong there.” Now, when a picture of the court is taken with three women and six men, “we look like we belong there” and “nobody calls me Justice Sotomayor.”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/17/2014 - 11:19 am.

    National Treasure

    To steal a friend’s opinion, the Notorious R.B.G is a national treasure. What would things look like if all of the justices had at least half her wit, foresight, and wisdom? I would assert that things would be better.

  2. Submitted by Hal Davis on 09/17/2014 - 12:35 pm.


    I noted this description of Justice Ginsburg: “(Ginsburg is 5’1, slight and frail).”

    That was after I followed the link to “The Notorious R.B.G.” tumblr account, where this was the first entry:

    For more than a decade, Ginsburg has worked with a trainer in the Supreme Court’s small ground-level exercise room. Recently, Breyer used a machine that Ginsburg had been using; she set it at six, while he could handle only five. Kagan uses the same trainer as Ginsburg, and when the younger Justice struggles with fifteen-pound curls the trainer says, ‘C’mon! Justice Ginsburg can do that easily!’
    — From the archives: Jeffrey Toobin profiles Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (via newyorker)
    (via newyorker)

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/17/2014 - 01:13 pm.

    educated guess….??

    She will submit and follow orders soon. Her retirement will be announced early summer.

    • Submitted by Kurt Nelson on 09/17/2014 - 02:40 pm.

      Submit to what

      Does she strike you as the type of person who submits to anything? Nope, me either. She will be on the Court as long as she is able to do the job (according to her). She may in fact retire after the next term, but it will not be because somebody told her to do so.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/17/2014 - 05:25 pm.


      You have to be joking.

      If Justice Ginsburg’s masters were putting any thought into this matter, they would see how unlikely it is that any further Obama nominee to the Supreme Court would get confirmation. They will certainly tell her to wait to retire until her successor has a better chance of making it through the Senate.

      It’s really cute how you think there is someone giving her orders.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 09/18/2014 - 01:04 pm.


      Oh…that was the educated guess? False alarm…

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 09/18/2014 - 11:43 am.

    And another Supreme takes the spotlight…

    Ginsburg, a fine Supreme indeed considering some of her less progressive colleagues on the bench these days, but hope this does not start a wave of fellow judges on the speakers circuit filling up those soon to be empty sports arenas with for-profit engagements?

    Every judge brings their own subliminal take on issues and I do wonder if they ever change their minds on an issue after hearing their fellow judges debate, really?

    I learned much I didn’t know of one fine human being…interesting, yes.

    Funny thing , can’t help wondering, if she were younger and handicapped rather than a physically active soul..would her position from a wheelchair even enter in; affect her mind and her ability to be a credible judge? No way, so whatever her private choices exposed, are only to humanize her beyond age stereotypes I suppose?

    Many among the elder generation do work out and do it well…nice side note but beyond that may her points of view in all their positive awareness, always remain clear and receptive to the greater truth if there be one; not stuck in one mindset when other views are voiced with any viability?

    We need to be concerned when minds atrophy in stages along the time path from 1-81, whatever,and repeat rather than create and never consider alternative perspectives? This happens too, sans age as a factor? Call them fundamentalists; perspectives frozen and rigid, and they are plentiful in this mixed-up society?

    We need to teach critical thinking to the young so they are not vulnerable; make choices and never become mere followers?

    Ginsburg sounds like a fascinating woman beyond any limitations of time and detailed physical perceptions so subliminally defined yet not intended to downsize I know…

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