Behind the Most Creative—and Deserving—Supreme Court Nickname Ever

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Behind the Most Creative—and Deserving—Supreme Court Nickname Ever

David S. Cohen

Notorious RBG is a lively, accessible, and smart look at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life, career, and impact on American law and feminism.

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that certain states with racist pasts had to have voting changes “pre-cleared” by the Department of Justice. Basically, Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the opinion, this protection was no longer needed because racism was over.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent was furious. She accused the majority of overstepping its authority and ignoring the ways that race discrimination still grips this country, writing, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”  

When the case came down, Shana Knizhnik, a first-year law student at New York University, was outraged too. Knizhnik almost immediately created a Tumblr as a tribute to Ginsburg, calling it Notorious R.B.G.—a phrase borrowed from a classmate’s Facebook postingin homage to the rapper Notorious B.I.G.—and using Ginsburg’s “umbrella” line as its first post.

From this, an Internet sensation was born. Cities around the country have RBG-inspired cocktails; the Cartoon Network’s show Clarence has a character named after her (Wrath Hover Ginsbot, who is “appointed for life to kick your butt”); babies, kids, and grown-ups (my wife included, just last week) now dress up as RBG for Halloween; she is mentioned in all sorts of popular media, from Scandal to Saturday Night Live; and at least three people across the country have documented RBG tattoos.

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With such a genesis story, you might have expected Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a book inspired by the Tumblr and released from HarperCollins last week, to be a tongue-in-cheek look at RBG in popular culture, with perhaps a few cursory references to her experiences. Even the book design reflects this: Its appearance looks fun and breezy, including the cover image of Justice Ginsburg in a crown, the scribbled case annotations on the inside (one of which, in full disclosure, I contributed), and the many photos and cartoon drawings that break up the prose.

You’d be wrong, though. Instead, Knizhnik teamed up with journalist Irin Carmon to write a lively, accessible, and smart look at RBG’s life, career, and impact on American law and feminism.

It may seem unbelievable that a justice so modest that she once proposed to her colleagues on the D.C. Circuit that they release unanimous opinions without the author’s name on it, so straight-laced that her children once documented every instance of her laughter in their own book called Mommy Laughed, is the now-ubiquitous public figure Notorious RBG. In fact, the moniker itself is an exercise in contrasts. The book notes:

To [Knizhnik], the reference to the 300-pound deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G. was both tongue-in-cheek and admiring. The humor was in the contrasts — the elite court and the streets, white and black, female and male, octogenarian and died too young. The woman who had never much wanted to make a stir and the man who had left his mark. There were similarities too. Brooklyn. Like the swaggering lyricist, this tiny Jewish grandmother who demanded patience as she spoke could also pack a verbal punch.

As Knizhnik and Carmon write, from an early age RBG distinguished herself not only with her unusual intelligence but also with an unrivaled work ethic. She fell in love with her husband at Cornell University because, unlike the other men who “were in awe” of her beauty, he was wowed by her brain and “wooed and won her by convincing her how much he respected her.”

Marty Ginsburg, her husband of 56 years who died in 2010, was a key part of RBG’s life. Though Marty was a highly successful tax lawyer, he happily let his career take a backseat to RBG’s after being made partner at his firm. In fact, when she was appointed to be a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court in 1980, he left his practice in New York to move to Washington and support her career, something unheard of at the time for a husband to do. When there was an opening on the Supreme Court, Marty lobbied everyone he possibly could in Washington to have RBG appointed. She supported him too, helping him through an early bout of testicular cancer while in law school together and raising their young kids while he focused on developing his practice. In the end, though, he wound up happily playing second fiddle to his brilliant jurist wife.

The book chronicles their relationship and love in the context of RBG’s development as a pathmarking (a word she loves) feminist lawyer, and ultimately as the second woman on the Supreme Court. Despite always being the smartest person in the room, RBG faced early pushback while attending Harvard Law School, being told by the dean she was taking the seat of a qualified man. The professors who supported her had to almost beg federal judges to take her for a clerkship, with several openly saying that they wouldn’t hire a woman. And when corporate law firms wouldn’t hire her out of her clerkships, RBG took the advice of a Columbia Law professor who suggested she help him with a book about Swedish civil procedure.

This research changed her life. She traveled to Sweden for the book, where she absorbed the ongoing debates, far advanced from those in the United States in the early 1960s, about women’s role in society. This experience developed her dedication to fighting for women’s liberation’s—as well as for men’s liberation. As the book makes clear, throughout her time as a law professor and at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, RBG fought for gender equality across the board, believing that the only way women could truly be free was if men also were liberated from the stereotypes of masculinity that bound them.

Many of the cases she took to the Supreme Court reflected this belief—those on behalf of men (like her husband) taking on non-traditional gender roles and the government treating them poorly as a result. RBG was convinced that challenging the sexism behind men’s stereotypes would also free women from the shackles of bigotry as well. Largely because of her dogged pursuit of feminist justice, in a series of cases in the mid-’70s, the Court changed the way it viewed sex discrimination under the Constitution.

RBG was a star litigator who had changed an entire body of law, and she was rewarded by President Carter appointing her to the D.C. Circuit, the federal appeals court in Washington. There, RBG didn’t make many waves, instead hewing closely to Supreme Court precedent and garnering a reputation as a moderate. In fact, based on one study mentioned in Notorious RBG, she voted with Robert Bork 85 percent of the time—yes, that Robert Bork, the uber-conservative, failed Supreme Court nominee who is widely recognized as one of the foremost progenitors of extreme originalism. When Justice Byron White announced his retirement from the Supreme Court in 1993, President Bill Clinton took months before settling on RBG as White’s successor. At the ceremony announcing the nomination, Clinton hailed RBG as a moderate.

Part of this perception came from her longstanding criticism of Roe v. Wade. As much as RBG supported abortion rights and thought them essential to women’s equality, she had written and spoken repeatedly about her belief that Roe was decided too broadly and under the wrong principles. She thought an opinion based on women’s equal citizenship rather than privacy, and which avoided the unnecessary discussion of the trimester framework, would have been more grounded in the Constitution and better for the country as a whole. She didn’t question the importance of abortion for women’s rights or the correctness of the case’s ultimate result in striking down Texas’ prohibition on abortion, but that nuance was lost on the general public. Because she had criticized Roe, she was seen as a Democratic appointment who would not be radical.

Two decades later, with an Internet meme dedicated to her powerful words on behalf of liberal causes, Clinton’s “moderate” appointment seems to have been either a mistake or a clever head-fake. As the book makes clear, RBG has not written many powerful liberal majority opinions in her time on the Court, though her opinion finding that the Virginia Military Institute’s prohibition on women attending the school was unconstitutional sex discrimination acted as a wonderful cap to her past career as a women’s rights constitutional litigator. Beyond that, Notorious RBG doesn’t discuss her important majority decisions around access to the courts for the poor or criminal justice. Overall, however, the Court has been too conservative during her tenure for her to write many other majority opinions in the high-profile cases that have divided it.

Instead, as the book so powerfully details, RBG has found her voice, particularly in the past several years, as the newest Great Dissenter on the Court. A title previously held by Justices John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Thurgood Marshall, the Great Dissenter speaks in powerful words and is often vindicated by history. That is the position in which we now find RBG. Her pithy and pointed dissents about employment discrimination, voting rights, abortion restrictions, contraceptive access, Medicaid expansion, and affirmative action, all well-chronicled in the book, have garnered her the admiration of millions. No doubt, RBG and her legion of followers hope that history vindicates her as well, and that one day in the near future she’ll be writing majority opinions on those topics.

In light of everything the book covers about RBG’s life—her deceptively frail appearance, her love of opera, her extreme intelligence and bookishness, her lifelong commitment to social justice through law—perhaps the greatest RBG contrast is her enthusiastic acceptance of the Notorious RBG label. In her ninth decade of working harder and being smarter than almost everyone else around her, as Notorious RBG makes clear, it’s not only the most creative Supreme Court nickname ever, but it’s also probably the best-deserved one too.