Ruth Bader Ginsburg Talks America's Race Problem And, Oh Yeah, "Notorious RBG"
Got a few minutes? If so, it's well worth reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg's interview with The National Law Journal, in which she has a wide-ranging conversation on the American political and social landscape. Ginsburg talks race, Hobby Lobby, the people's trust in the Supreme Court, and more — and in doing so furthers her status as the most beloved mind on the bench. And yes, if you've ever wondered, she knows about "Notorious RBG," too.
Ginsburg's popularity among social activists spiked following the widely-panned Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, which granted the arts and crafts chain a religious freedom exemption from having to offer health insurance plans with covered contraception to female employees. It was, as has been observed, a triumph of error over scientific fact — the company's Christian ownership argued that a number of birth control drugs were effectively akin to abortions, despite medical evidence to the contrary.
The court's conservative majority ultimately sided with them, basically setting the precedent that sincerely held belief can supersede scientific understanding. Ginsburg issued a 35-page dissent of the ruling, which in addition to seeming a lot more prescient than the majority opinions of her colleagues, bolstered her status among a younger generation of American women's rights activists.
Here are some of the highlights from RBG's great interview — I admit, I could probably read her walking through the issues of our times all day long.
On Race, LGBT Equality, and the Court's Role
Ginsburg feels SCOTUS' once-laudable record of defending the rights of minorities has fallen by the wayside, and she's not happy about it. According to The National Law Journal, she called attention to the court's 1971 embrace of the concept of "disparate impact" — the idea that an ostensibly fair, "level playing field" sort of policy could actually pose significant struggles for specific members of a minority group, which would justify reform and unique protections.
SCOTUS' recent track record, however, has not been kind to those sorts of arguments. Whether it's the affirmative action ban in Michigan, or their striking-down of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (which Ginsburg described as "hubris," and like "throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet"), the court of late has some controversial rulings on race under its belt. And, for Ginsburg, a lot of this comes down to familiarity.
Once [gay] people began to say who they were, you found that it was your next-door neighbor or it could be your child, and we found people we admired. That understanding still doesn’t exist with race; you still have separation of neighborhoods, where the races are not mixed. It’s the familiarity with people who are gay that still doesn’t exist for race and will remain that way for a long time as long as where we live remains divided.
It's a savvy recognition of the difference between sexuality and race, and how people interact with them in their own lives.
On Michigan's Affirmative Action Ruling
In October 2013, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold the state of Michigan's ban on affirmative action in college admissions, which had been voted into law by referendum in 2006. In doing so, they overturned a lower appeals court ruling which had invalidated the ban, and by Supreme Court standards, it wasn't a close outcome. Despite these sorts of cases so often boiling down to a 5-4, conservative-over-liberal split, this time only two Justices balked at the ban — Ginsburg, and the sole minority member of the liberal block, Sonia Sotomayor.
Ginsburg tasked Sotomayor with writing the dissent, and what a dissent it was — Sotomayor blended evident personal passion with clear-headed jurisprudence in decrying the ruling, and Ginsburg wanted her to lead the way. She told the National Law Review:
She cared deeply about the issue. She might have been distressed about some of the reports in the Fisher [v. University of Texas] case where she went along with the court. So if anybody had doubts about her views on affirmative action she wanted to quell them, which she certainly did.
... It was a passionate dissent. It was more frustration that a majority didn’t see it the way she did. It was a 6-2 decision and, I thought, not a very good distinction of the two decisions (precedents) which Sotomayor said, and the majority denied, had found the system changed to benefit majorities.
On the Public's Lack of Faith in the Court's Neutrality
When asked about public perception of the court being politically motivated, Ginsburg partially blamed the woeful levels of support for Congress, and theorized that it has a "spillover effect" into people's analyses of their rulings.
I think it’s the spillover effect from the dismay about our dysfunctional Congress. Whatever the polls say about the court, we stand much, much higher than either of the other two branches. I think people are disillusioned with our government’s inability to work and that spills over to the court because we are part of the government.
On Hobby Lobby, and How to Respect Religious Beliefs
Of course, there's no need to remind you how Ginsburg felt about that Hobby Lobby ruling — she spent 35 pages telling us at the time. But on the question of religious belief impacting the lives of non-believers, she has a pretty simple and practical philosophy.
To me, Hobby Lobby was a very simple case, an easy [one]. The image I used that I borrowed: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” I fully respect the beliefs of the Greens [who own Hobby Lobby] and those who own Conestoga Wood, but they had hundreds of people working for them who don’t share their views. Somebody who does share their views is not going to want access.
And, Yes, On "Notorious RBG"
Ginsburg was asked if she'd ever write a book about her life, and she replied "never," which makes a sort of sense — she's already got a full life as a justice, and at 81, she's the oldest member of the court. Why waste time writing books when other people are chronicling your work for you?
There are two people—Wendy Williams and Mary Hartnett—who are writing a book about me and it will be very good. I don’t care if I ever see it or how long it takes. There is another book being written without my authorization and a book about me and Justice O’Connor but Justice O’Connor was not interested. Then there is a professor who decided to do a book and asked various people who know me to write a chapter.
And then, of course, there are the Tumblr historians of our modern age.
That’s more than enough, and then there is the Tumblr, the Notorious R.B.G.
All I need is for her to wear that T-shirt, and my life is complete.
Images: Getty Images (4)