Published November 2019 by Holt, Henry and Company, Inc.
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
This remarkable book presents a unique portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, drawing on more than twenty years of conversations with Jeffrey Rosen, starting in the 1990s and continuing through the Trump era. Rosen, a veteran legal journalist, scholar, and president of the National Constitution Center, shares with us the justice’s observations on a variety of topics, and her intellect, compassion, sense of humor, and humanity shine through. The affection they have for each other as friends is apparent in their banter and in their shared love for the Constitution—and for opera.
In Conversations with RBG, Justice Ginsburg discusses the future of Roe v. Wade, her favorite dissents, the cases she would most like to see overruled, the #MeToo movement, how to be a good listener, how to lead a productive and compassionate life, and of course the future of the Supreme Court itself. These frank exchanges illuminate the steely determination, self-mastery, and wit that have inspired Americans of all ages to embrace the woman known to all as “Notorious RBG.”
Whatever the topic, Justice Ginsburg always has something interesting—and often surprising—to say. And while few of us will ever have the opportunity to chat with her face-to-face, Jeffrey Rosen brings us by her side as never before. Conversations with RBG is a deeply felt portrait of an American hero.
I’m pretty sure I’ve made my love of Ruth Bader Ginsburg abundantly clear before. So you can imagine that I jumped at the chance to read this book.
Jeffrey Rosen first met RBG in an elevator in 1991 when he was a law clerk on the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she was then a judge. To break the silence in the elevator, he asked her which operas she’d seen recently. This without even knowing that RBG is a huge opera fan. It was the beginning of what has developed into a long friendship. Rosen’s familiarity with Ginsburg, both personally and professionally, gives readers the feeling that we are just eavesdropping in on conversation between two people sitting at the next table
Rosen says of Ginsburg that when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she was “viewed as a judge’s judge, a judicial minimalist, praised by conservatives (and questioned by some liberals) for her restrained approach to the judicial function. That hardly seems to fit with the woman many call the “Dissenter in Chief.” But it’s clear, through these conversations, that Ginsburg remains a judge who believes that the courts should stay out of making big statements; rather, they should rule more narrowly, sticking just with the issue at hand. I learned so much, reading this book, about how Ginsburg rules and why. It hasn’t always made her as popular with some people as she is now (feminists were not happy with her opinion that the court had ruled too broadly in Roe v. Wade, for example) but it seems every bit as measured and thoughtful as I expected it would. I also gained an appreciation for how the Supreme Court works and the interactions of the justices. Ginsburg says that, for the most part, the justices work to keep politics out of their dealings with each other (and, in theory) out of their rulings. This, and a mutual love of opera, helped Ginsburg become great friends with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a man conservatives loved.
Rosen and Ginsburg talk a lot about the cases she has been a part of over the years, as a lawyer defending cases before the Court, as a Circuit Court judge, and as a Supreme Court justice. They talk about Roe v. Wade, the Hobby Lobby ruling, and the Citizen’s United ruling. Rosen has organized the book by subjects but I often found the same cases coming up again and again. It did get repetitive at times and I sometimes struggled to remember to which case they were referring when only the case name was referenced. My only other issue was that, sometimes, things felt a bit disjointed, as though the conversations hadn’t been edited as smoothly as they might have been. Occasionally I found myself rereading passages to understand what it was Rosen was trying to convey.
Over her career, Ginsburg has often fought for women’s right circuitously, bringing issues to court with a male defendant. Her theory was that it would be easier to convince judges that the men deserved equal rights with the women as the reverse. In so doing, it has been her experience that women are the ones who truly gain. In this book, she talks a great deal about how laws have been made to “protect” women and what it has taken to overturn those laws.
“…my objective was to take the Court step by step to the realization in Justice Brennan’s words, that the pedestal on which some thought women were standing was all too often turned into a cage.”
“We were trying to get rid of all laws modeled on that stereotypical view of the world, that men earn the bread and women take care of the home and children.”Going forward, Ginsburg says that to secure full equality, there need to be legal changes to the unconscious bias and work-life balance. Here’s to hoping she has many more years to help make those changes.
“Even when one is all grown up, death of a beloved parent is a loss difficult to bear. But you will honor your mother best if you carry on with your work and days, thriving in the challenges and joys of being alive. Isn’t that just what she would have willed?” – Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgI feel the same way about you, Justice Ginsburg!