Review: Notorious RBG

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Cardmon & Shana Knizhnik. New York: Dey StreetBooks, 2015.

Summary: A profile of the Supreme Court Justice, centered around her dissenting opinions read from the bench but also tracing her career, her marriage, work out routines and more, liberally illustrated with photos and images.

In the 2012-2013 session of the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg read five of her dissents orally from the bench, a record, and perhaps a commentary of sorts on the court’s majority. She attracted the attention of feminists and one of the authors, Shana Knizhnik, whose Tumblr account, named after the deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G., Notorious RBG. This spawned a cottage industry of T-shirts, posters, and memes celebrating the diminutive yet formidable Justice.

The authors chronicle her rise, and contend that it was not always an icon of feminism. Yes, she was a pathbreaker in the legal profession, teaching at Rutgers and Columbia and co-founding the Women’s Rights Project, an analogue to the NAACP’s strategy of making incremental progress through legal precedents. This led to her appointment to the DC District Court of Appeals, and then to the Supreme Court under Bill Clinton. Throughout the time, she and others characterized her as a moderate. Only late in life, through the influence of her clerks, her senior status as a liberal on the court, and the rightward movement of the court did she become a fierce representative of the resistance.

The authors include excerpts from her dissents, striking for their readability, something she believed in. But this is not all work and no play, although RBG had a Herculean work ethic, often working late into the night on opinions. She had a storybook marriage to Marty, who she met at Harvard Law. It was a truly egalitarian marriage and one in which Marty often arranged his work around Ginsburg’s court work. He also happened to be the better cook (there is even a recipe of Marty’s in the appendix).

Then there were her relationships with other Justices, the deep respect she had for Rehnquist, despite their differences, as “the Chief,” the support she gave younger women including Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, and the unusual friendship with Antonin “Nino” Scalia. They shared a love of opera, and there is even a picture of the two riding an elephant together!

Finally, part of her endurance had to do with her physical workout routines. She could do twenty pushups! The book, which ends during the Obama administration, details her determination to keep working, particularly in a brief window of time when she was in a majority and wasn’t making her mark with her dissents. No doubt, there will be many questions about the wisdom of her choice.

What this book makes clear is that there will be no questions about the distinctive character and contribution of Justice Ginsburg on the bench, from her opinions to her jabots! While not a full-fledged biography, and clearly an account by those who liked their subject, this book, liberally illustrated with photographs and illustrations from throughout her life, demonstrate that “notorious” is not a bad word to describe RBG.