No, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Does Not Intend To Retire Anytime Soon | KUOW News and Information

No, Ruth Bader Ginsburg Does Not Intend To Retire Anytime Soon

Oct 3, 2016
Originally published on October 3, 2016 8:26 am

With the presidential election just five weeks away, all discussions about the U.S. Supreme Court focus on the unfilled vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and the likelihood of more vacancies to come. Speculation about the most likely justice to retire centers on 83-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. But in an interview with NPR, she didn't sound like a woman eager to retire.

The occasion for the interview was the publication of a new book titled My Own Words. It includes a wide sampling of Ginsburg's writing, from a childhood newspaper piece to current Supreme Court opinions and dissents.

The writing samples were chosen jointly by Ginsburg and her authorized biographers, law professors Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams. The original plan was to have this volume come out after the biography was published. But as Ginsburg put it in our interview last month:

"My biographers ... would like to have my time at the court almost complete before they finish the book. We decided ... to flip the order."

Was that her way of saying she doesn't intend to retire anytime soon?

"I will retire when it's time," Ginsburg replied. "And, when is it time? When I can't do the job full-steam."

To read these pieces is to view the span of a professional career that profoundly changed the lives of American women, their families, their schools and their workplaces.

In interviews, Ginsburg has recounted stories both funny and sad, some of them reflected in this volume. Over the years, I have come to call them "RBG's Greatest Hits."

One of them is the advice her mother-in-law gave her on her wedding day.

"She took me aside and said, 'Dear, I want you to know the secret of a happy marriage: Every now and then, it helps to be a little deaf.' And with that, she handed me a pair of earplugs."

It is advice that served her well, says the justice, not only with her husband, Marty Ginsburg, but with her fellow justices.

In law school, when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she learned that sleep was relatively unnecessary. She had to take care of him and her 2-year-old daughter, and do her own studying. Because daily radiation treatments made Marty too sick to eat during the day, dinner was late at night — between midnight and 2.

"My bad hamburger usually," said the justice, adding, "and then he would dictate to me his senior paper. And then he'd go back to sleep. And it was about 2 when I'd take out the books and start reading what I needed to read to be prepared for classes the next day."

Though she graduated from law school tied for first in her class, she couldn't find a job. Law firms in those days were loath to hire a woman, much less a mother.

She would go on to a stellar academic career, hiding her second pregnancy to win tenure. At the same time, she founded the ACLU Women's Rights Project.

For more than a decade she briefed and argued dozens of sex discrimination cases, persuading the courts to treat men and women the same way under the law.

Before her first Supreme Court appearance in 1973, a nervous Ginsburg skipped lunch for fear she would throw up at the afternoon argument. But in the archival audiotape, she sounds not skittish, but steely.

In the years that followed, Ginsburg continued her no-sleep ways, as she often does even now. But when talking to young lawyers today about so-called life balance issues, she recalls how her son's school used to call her at least once a month demanding that she come in to discuss some piece of mischief he'd engaged in.

Finally there came the day when her answer put a practical end to these calls.

"I was very weary," she said. "I stayed up all night the night before. And I said to the principal, 'This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It's his father's turn.' "

Marty Ginsburg dutifully went to see what Ginsburg calls the "stone faces" at the school but, after that, the school rarely called. Observing that her son's behavior did not seriously change, Ginsburg theorizes that once the school had to call a man away from his work, it decided such parental calls were not worth the candle.

One of the pieces in the Ginsburg book is called "Remembering Justice Scalia." The late justice was her ideological opposite. People often ask how the two intellectual sparring partners could be such close personal friends. Ginsburg noted their many similarities — their devotion to family, to writing, to words, to opera.

But first and foremost, she said, he was such a good friend because "he had an extraordinary ability to make me laugh."

A couple of years ago, I interviewed Scalia and Ginsburg for the Smithsonian Associates, and all aspects of their friendship were on display before a large audience. They teased each other, told admiring stories about each other, and they fought — intelligently, respectfully and adamantly. Like this exchange, after I asked Scalia to explain his view that the Constitution is not living, but "dead":

Ginsburg was, of course, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. And her other great friend among the justices was the first woman, Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor. It was because of O'Connor's generosity, says Ginsburg, that as a very junior justice she got to write the court's historic opinion declaring that the all-male, state-sponsored Virginia Military Institute could not exclude qualified women.

Ginsburg explains that originally the opinion was assigned to O'Connor, "but Justice O'Connor, her response was, 'Ruth should write this opinion.' "

Now, two decades later, Ginsburg is the court's most senior and very influential liberal justice. And in February, she is scheduled to visit VMI, a school that now has a student body that's 11 percent female.

For 60 of her years on this earth, Ruth Ginsburg's biggest booster, best pal and heartthrob was her husband, Marty. He promoted her at every turn, teased her incessantly, and prodded her back to work after both of her cancer surgeries.

In 2010, though, it was Marty who was mortally ill. And as she packed up his things at the hospital, preparing to take him home to die, she found a handwritten note he'd drafted.

"My dearest Ruth, you are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside a bit parents and kids and their kids ... And, I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell ... The time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less."

I have known Ruth Bader Ginsburg for some 40 years, and when I asked her to read the letter for an interview this summer, it was the first time I ever saw her cry.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made her life an open book. The book is called "My Own Words: Ruth Bader Ginsburg." It features selections of her writings dating back to age 13, when she edited a school paper. It includes her best known court opinions as well.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports on the 83-year-old justice known inside the court, and actually outside as well, as RBG.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The original plan was to have this volume come out after Ginsburg's authorized biography was published. But as the justice told me last month...

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: My biographers would like to have my time at the court almost complete before they finish the book. We decided last October to flip the order.

TOTENBERG: Is that your way of saying you don't intend to retire anytime soon?

GINSBURG: I will retire when it's time. And when is it time? When I can't do the job full-steam.

TOTENBERG: To read these pieces is to view the span of a professional career that's profoundly changed the lives of American women, their families, their schools and their workplaces.

In interviews with the justice, I've heard many of her stories over the years. I've come to call them RBG's greatest hits. One of them is the advice her mother-in-law gave her on her wedding day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBURG: She took me aside and said dear, I want you to know the secret of a happy marriage. Every now and then, it helps to be a little deaf. And with that, she handed me a pair of earplugs.

GINSBURG: It's advice, says the justice, that served her well not only with her husband Marty Ginsburg, but with her fellow justices. In law school when Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer, she learned that sleep was relatively unnecessary. She had to take care of him, her 2-year-old daughter and do her own studying. Because the daily radiation treatments made Marty too sick to eat during the day, dinner was between midnight and two.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBURG: My bad hamburger, usually. And then he would dictate to me his senior paper. And then he'd go back to sleep. And it was about 2 o'clock. Then I'd take out the books and start reading what I needed to read to be prepared for classes the next day.

TOTENBERG: Though she graduated from law school tied for first in her class, she couldn't find a job. Law firms were loath to hire a woman, much less a mother.

She would go on to a stellar academic career, hiding her second pregnancy to win tenure, and founded the ACLU Women's Project. For more than a decade, she briefed and argued dozens of sex discrimination cases, persuading the courts to treat men and women the same way under the law.

Before her first Supreme Court appearance in 1973, a nervous Ginsburg skipped lunch for fear she would throw up at the afternoon argument. But in the tape, available on the Oyez website, she sounds not skittish, but steely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBURG: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court. The legislative judgment in both derives from the same stereotype.

TOTENBERG: In her 30s and 40s, Ginsburg often was exasperated by demands from school administrators that she come to discuss her son's alleged misbehavior. Finally, there came a day when she'd had enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBURG: I was very weary. I stayed up all night the night before. And I said to the principal, this child has two parents. Please alternate calls.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: That hearty laugh in the background was Justice Antonin Scalia, often Ginsburg's ideological opposite on the Supreme Court. He was such a good friend, says Ginsburg, because in the words of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"...

GINSBURG: He had an extraordinary ability to make me laugh. We liked each other. Our styles were very different. But we both labored over our opinions.

TOTENBERG: A couple of years ago, I interviewed the two of them for the Smithsonian Associates, and all aspects of their friendship were on display. They teased each other, told admiring stories about each other. And they fought intelligently, respectfully and adamantly.

Here's a fragment of their discussion about whether the Constitution is a living document.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONIN SCALIA: If it is subject to whimsical change by 5 out of 9 votes on the Supreme Court, who decide that it ought to mean something different from what the people voted on when they ratified the provision of the Constitution, that is not a living Constitution.

GINSBURG: Well, you said the people. Think of our Constitution in 1787. We the people, the people who were part of the political community were white property-owning men, very select constituency.

(APPLAUSE)

GINSBURG: So I have always said that I think the genius of our Constitution is that over now more than two centuries, this notion of who counts has become ever more inclusive.

TOTENBERG: Ginsburg was of course the second woman to serve on the court. And her other great friend among the justices was the first woman, Reagan appointee Sandra Day O'Connor.

It was because of O'Connor's generosity, says Ginsburg, that as a very junior justice, she got to write the Court's historic opinion declaring that the all-male state-sponsored Virginia Military Institute could not exclude qualified women. Originally, the opinion was assigned to O'Connor.

GINSBURG: But Justice O'Connor, her response was Ruth should write this opinion.

GINSBURG: For 60 of her years on this Earth, Ruth Ginsburg's biggest booster, best pal and heartthrob was her husband Marty, who promoted her at every turn, teased her incessantly and prodded her back to work after both of her bouts with cancer.

In 2010 though, it was Marty who was mortally ill. And as she packed up his things at the hospital, preparing to take him home to die, she found a handwritten note he'd drafted.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GINSBURG: My dearest Ruth, I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell. The time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of polity now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less (crying).

TOTENBERG: I have known Ruth Bader Ginsburg for some 40 years. And that reading, at my request this summer when I interviewed her for the Academy of Achievement, was the first time I ever saw her cry.

MONTAGNE: And that's Nina Totenberg for NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.