Mae Woods Bell

Mae Woods Bell

Tiny jurist packs outsized influence

By Mae Woods Bell
Book Reviewer

0 Comments | Leave a Comment

‘Notorious RGB” (HarperCollins, $19.99) begins as a celebration of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a personality, but it also covers the past five decades that showcase how different America has become for women, in part because of the work the U.S. Supreme Court associate justice has done on their behalf.

Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik are millennial bloggers turned biographers who obviously are fans of the jurist. Their book is a celebration of Ginsburg’s life to date. Their work is well-researched and well-written and does a good job of making our legal system understandable since the book covers many of Ginsburg’s written opinions and legal commentary on such issues as equal gender rights (and men’s and minorities’ as well), including numerous pages of her court opinions handed down in her fight.

Carmon is a journalist who interviewed Ginsburg in February 2015 for MSNBC; Knizhnik, then a law student, created the Tumblr blog Notorious RBG as a tribute to Ginsburg. She and Carmon appreciate the ability to share information via Internet “but wanted to make something you could hold in your hands” for longer than a browser tab. They collaborated, as Carmon wrote the text and Knizhnik chose the myriad and varied images in the work. They dug deep into Ginsburg’s archive at the Library of Congress and interviewed her family members, close friends, colleagues and friends. Ginsburg, herself, met with Carmon in May 2015 to fact-check parts of the book.

In the first chapter, the authors show us the feisty side of Ginsburg when she insists on being heard. Announcing a majority opinion in the court chamber is custom; doing so for a dissenting opinion is rare. Feeling deeply about the killing of the Voting Rights Act, Ginsburg loudly read her dissent, much to the dismay of Associate Justice Samuel Alito, who had written the majority opinion. The writers observe, “It’s like pulling the fire alarm, a public shaming of the majority that you want the world to hear.”

Throughout the book there are numerous anecdotes that are startling and informative. The book is not written in chronological order, which makes it fun to guess what gems will be awaiting the reader as the pages turn. After the 2012-13 term, reading dissents from the bench in five cases, she broke a half-century record among all justices. “People wondered where the quiet and seemingly RBG had gone, where the firebrand had come from. But the truth is, that women had always been there,” writes Carmon about the second female justice of the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg’s personal life is a warm record of a successful marriage. Ruth Bader met Marty Ginsburg when they were in law school. Neither seemed to have an ego where the other was concerned – neither felt the need to be in charge. When Marty Ginsburg was diagnosed with cancer while they were still in law school, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a student take notes for her husband, came home daily, typed them up for him, cared for their child, then did her own studying Marty Ginsburg later pitched in at home when their daughter was a toddler and his wife was teaching law and working with the American Civil Liberties Union. “Mommy does the thinking and daddy does the cooking,” their daughter said. Before his death in June 2010, Marty Ginsburg, a professor of tax law, and an inveterate raconteur, claimed he moved to Washington when his wife “got a good job.”

In the strange bedfellows department, Ginsburg’s close friendship with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and his family began before either was on the U.S. Supreme Court, something many found difficult to grapple with. Scalia is as far right as any justice on the court; Ginsburg to the far left. Both share a love of opera, and their families often share holidays together. This unlikely friendship is now the subject of the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg.” Among the photos in the book is one from Ginsburg’s chambers that shows the rotund Scalia and the tiny Ginsburg riding an elephant.

This is a very different biography. It contains numerous photos and odd images of Ginsburg, selfies, drawings, satires, portraits and even her husband’s recipe for pork loin braised in milk. There also is the widely circulated photo of Ginsburg dozing during the State of the Union address in February 2015, of which she confesses she was not “100 percent sober” at the time. She is an icon and a national treasure with a sense of humor as well.