Supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called herself a “flaming feminist” on Sunday, and said she plans to spend “at least another five years” on the bench.
Her comments followed a performance in New York of The Originalist, a play about her former colleague and friend Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. Scalia’s seat on the nine-member panel is now filled by Neil Gorsuch, another conservative who was nominated by Donald Trump.
Ginsburg, 85, was speaking a little more than a month after the announcement of the retirement of another conservative justice, Anthony Kennedy. Trump has nominated Brett Kavanaugh to replace him, aiming to push the court right for decades.
“My dear spouse used to say the true symbol of the US is not a bald eagle,” Ginsburg said on Sunday. “It is the pendulum.”
She was responding to a question about how Americans have questioned the country’s institutions this summer.
“And when it goes very far in one direction,” she continued, “you can count on it coming back”.
With Congress mired in partisanship and dominated by money, the justices of the supreme court have gained a kind of celebrity. Ginsburg especially has gained notoriety for vehement dissenting opinions in which she criticizes bigotry or unfairness as she sees it.
She is the subject of a new documentary, RBG, and has even had her daily fitness routine scrutinized. Twice weekly, according to The RBG Workout, she conditions with planks, push-ups, chest presses and and leg curls.
When Ginsburg entered the 59E59 Theater, New Yorkers outside applauded. Even her accessories betrayed her celebrity. She carried a black canvas tote printed with a message: “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes her mark”. That is the title of a picture book published after the success of “Notorious RBG”, a biography.
Ginsburg is a seasoned theatergoer and opera lover, interests she shared with Scalia, a Catholic arch-conservative. When Ginsburg sat down in the theater, a woman behind her remarked: “Ginsburg is sitting two rows in front of us. See her little head?” She was escorted by at least three secret service agents.
After the play, Ginsburg said: “One change in my life is I am now recognized.” When people approach her, she said, to pile on praise – “Justice Ginsburg, you’re my idol!” – she often responds: “Yes, so many people have told me I look just like her.”
The audience was polite throughout the play, which explores a fictionalized relationship between Scalia and a liberal clerk. During Ginsburg’s talk, it was rapt. People clapped, laughed or, with an occasional outburst, affirmed her stories. “Yes!” shouted one audience member, when Ginsburg described roadblocks she had faced as a Jewish woman.
The Originalist, by John Strand, was first produced in 2015 but it seemed apt in 2018. An early line sees Scalia say Roe v Wade, the 1973 decision which guaranteed the right to ********, is “on its deathbed”. That elicited groans. Kavanaugh’s nomination is seen as a direct threat to Roe.
In the discussion that followed the play, most questions focused on Ginburg’s relationship with Scalia, her “sparring partner”. Others asked what she thought was the most important case of the last 20 years: it is Obergefell v Hodges, the 2015 ruling that legalized same-*** marriage.
The audience’s favorite question may have been about Dean Dixon, a conductor who introduced Ginsburg to opera in 1944, when she was 11. Dixon, who was African American, said he was never called “maestro” until he went to Europe, a history chronicled in the book “Negro at Home, Maestro Abroad”.
Ginsburg said she looked at Dixon’s story as one example of America’s 20th-century fight with discrimination, from a time when when segregated troops fought “odious racism” in Europe during the second world war. For the court, that fight culminated in Brown v Board of Education, the 1954 ruling that stopped segregation in schools.
“Having been a woman and being a Jew, I know what it’s like to be the object of unfair discrimination,” she said.
America’s demons, in Ginsburg’s estimation, reared their heads again in 2013. She dissented a decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, one of the most enduring achievements of the civil rights era. It turned Ginsburg into a liberal icon.
“The genius of the constitution is it has become more and more inclusive,” she said on Sunday. “Now, ‘we the people’, embraces all the people.”
She added: “Courts never lead a social change. They only catch up to a change.”