What Makes Ruth Bader Ginsburg So “Notorious?”

It is very likely that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will retire during the administration of our next president. That is one of the big reasons why elections matter. Nominating her replacement will be critical in terms of the future of the Supreme Court.

As Irin Carmon points out though, that will not simply be because of her recently acquired reputation as the “notorious RBG.” I found this broader look into the way Ginsburg approaches her goals to be extremely instructive.

One day last May, while receiving an award, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court was asked to give advice to her younger female admirers…

“My advice is fight for the things that you care about,” Justice Ginsburg said. Fair enough — banal enough, really. Then she added, “But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Contrary to the image of the “avenging angel” we often see associated with Ginsburg, Carmon presents this:

But Justice Ginsburg would prefer a more delicate tool, having no patience for confrontation just for the sake of it. “Anger, resentment, envy and self-pity are wasteful reactions,” she has written. “They greatly drain one’s time. They sap energy better devoted to productive endeavors.”

Here’s how Carmon lays out Ginsburg’s approach:

Her vision for the world is transformative, but instead of broad sweeps, she has urged slow, incremental steps to that change. Rather than capitulation, this is about playing a long game…‘Present the court with the next logical step,’ she urged us, and then the next and then the next. ‘Don’t ask them to go too far too fast, or you’ll lose what you might have won.’…

It may seem strange for a feminist to counsel against anger when those of us who are not straight, white men have had to fight just to have room to express it. But the risk of burnout over fast-flaming conflicts is real. Our current conversations value catharsis over strategy. This doesn’t mean picking the middle point of two poles and calling it common sense; it just means thinking past instant outrage and doing sustainable work.

Speaking of our “current conversations,” it is clear that justices like Antonin Scalia would like to do to the Supreme Court what the Republican insurgency is doing to our presidential and Congressional politics. Here is how Carmon says that Justice Ginsburg approaches that:

On the court, Justice Ginsburg has tranquilly preached collegiality, a savvy move given that she and her colleagues are stuck together for life. In victory, Justice Ginsburg now tells her clerks, never demonize your opponents. She would rather win cases than go out dissenting in glory, which means, she said in a 2012 talk, “an opinion of the court very often reflects views that are not 100 percent what the opinion author would do, were she writing for herself.”

As someone who has followed the words and actions of President Obama extremely closely over the last 8 years, all of this sounds very familiar. It is basically a recitation of his approach to politics. From what I’ve read about Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, it captures how they approach their work on the Supreme Court as well. Here’s what Sotomayor wrote about that in her book, My Beloved World:

I could see that troubling the waters was occasionally necessary to bring attention to the urgency of some problem. But this style of political expression sometimes becomes an end in itself and can lose potency if used routinely. If you shout too loudly and too often, people tend to cover their ears…

Quiet pragmatism, of course, lacks the romance of vocal militancy. But I felt myself more a mediator than a crusader…Always, my first question was, what’s the goal? And then, who must be persuaded if it is to be accomplished?…If you want to change someone’s mind, you must understand what need shapes his or her opinion. To prevail, you must first listen…

So, when it comes time to talk to presidential candidates about what they’ll look for in people they would nominate to the Supreme Court…I’d simply say, “More of this, please.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.