In late February, three weeks after she had an operation for a recurrence of cancer, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg went to Barack Obama’s first address to Congress. Given the circumstances, it wasn’t an event anyone expected her to attend. She went, she said, because she wanted the country to see that there was a woman on the Supreme Court.
Now another woman, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, is about to begin the confirmation hearings that stand between her and a seat near Ginsburg on the high bench. After 16 years on the court — the last three, since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, as the only woman working alongside eight men — Ginsburg has a unique perspective on what’s at stake in Sotomayor’s nomination. I sat down with the 76-year-old justice last week to talk about women on the bench and their effect on the dynamics and decisions of the court.
I first met Justice Ginsburg a year ago, when she invited me to her chambers and to a tea for international fellows from Georgetown law school, at which she was speaking. It struck me then, as we walked through the courthouse, that each marker she pointed out involved women’s history — from a photograph and a political cartoon in the hallway outside her chambers of Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to the Supreme Court bar, to the renaming of a dining room at the court in honor of Natalie Cornell Rehnquist, wife of the late chief justice. (The tribute was O’Connor’s idea. “My former chief was a traditionalist, but he could hardly object,” Ginsburg said with a bit of glee.)
This time, we talked for 90 minutes in the personal office of Ginsburg’s temporary chambers (she is soon moving to the chambers that Justice David Souter is vacating). Ginsburg, who was wearing an elegant cream-colored suit, matching pumps and turquoise earrings, spoke softly, and at times her manner was mild, but she was forceful about why she thinks Sotomayor should be confirmed and about a few of the court’s recent cases. What follows is a condensed and edited version of our interview.
At the end of our time together, Ginsburg rose and said energetically that she would soon be off to her twice-weekly 7 p.m. personal-training session. She works out at the court on an elliptical machine, and she lifts weights. “To keep me in shape,” she said.
Q: At your confirmation hearings in 1993, you talked about how you hoped to see three or four women on the court. How do you feel about how long it has taken to see simply one more woman nominated?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: My prediction was right for the Supreme Court of Canada. They have Beverley McLachlin as the chief justice, and they have at least three other women. The attrition rate is slow on this court.
Q: Now that Judge Sotomayor has been nominated, how do you feel about that?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: I feel great that I don’t have to be the lone woman around this place.
Q: What has that been like?
JUSTICE GINSBURG: It’s almost like being back in law school in 1956, when there were 9 of us in a class of over 500, so that meant most sections had just 2 women, and you felt that every eye was on you. Every time you went to answer a question, you were answering for your entire sex. It may not have been true, but certainly you felt that way. You were different and the object of curiosity.