New Yorker: Justice Ginsburg



How Ruth Bader Ginsburg has moved the Supreme Court

By Jeffrey Toobin, March 11 2013.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turns eighty this month, and she can project the daunting stillness of a seated monarch. She is tiny—about five feet tall and a hundred pounds—and her face at rest conveys a pursed-lipped skepticism. She dresses with a dowager’s elegance, often in exotic shifts acquired on her travels around the world; she sometimes wears long gloves indoors. During conversations, she is given to taking lengthy pauses. This can be unnerving, especially at the Supreme Court, where silence only amplifies the sound of ticking clocks. Therefore, her clerks came up with what they call the two-Mississippi rule: after speaking, wait two beats before you say anything else. Ginsburg’s pauses have nothing to do with her age. It’s just the way she is.

There is some irony in Ginsburg’s reputation for reserve, because she is, by far, the current Court’s most accomplished litigator. Before Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., became a judge, he argued more cases than Ginsburg did before the Justices, but most of them were disputes of modest significance. Ginsburg, during the nineteen-seventies, argued several of the most important women’s-rights cases in the Court’s history. Her halting style in private never prevented her from vigorous advocacy before the bench. In those days, Ginsburg was a pioneer. When, as a forty-three-year-old Columbia Law School professor, she made a full argument before the Supreme Court, in 1976, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger stumbled when introducing her. “Mrs. Bader? Mrs. Ginsburg?” he said. (Female advocates, to say nothing of those with multi-part names, were a rarity in those days.) Later in the same case, Justice Potter Stewart made a similar mistake, calling her “Mrs. Bader.”

On one occasion, when she brought some female students to the courtroom with her, they urged her to insist that the Justices address her with the novel honorific Ms. “I decided not to make a fuss about it,” Ginsburg told me. “That wasn’t the reason I was there.” She has always prided herself on knowing which fights to pick. (Ginsburg won that 1976 case, as well as four of the five other cases she argued before the Justices.) As an advocate, Ginsburg had exquisite timing; she brought women’s-rights cases at precisely the moment the Supreme Court was willing to decide them in her favor. . . .

For complete article, see Jeffrey Toobin, Heavyweight, The New Yorker, March 11 2013.