Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave a whirlwind round of talks and interviews recently, acting like someone with something to promote. In this case, it appears to be, not the RBG action figure ($23.50 on Amazon, with gavel), but the Court.
It could use a lift and it is good to see Ginsburg talking beyond its confines. Alas, you might not be able to find a better instance of what is wrong with our news media, our culture and ourselves than the headline the estimable Wall Street Journal ran on a column about Ginsburg’s interview with NPR’s Nina Totenberg, “Justice Ginsburg Kicks Buttigieg.”
What is with the kicking? Why not, “Ginsburg trips Buttigieg”? “Ginsburg bites Buttigieg”? Are we supposed to believe she kicks like a mule? Why not “Ginsburg hammers Buttigieg”?
One good reason is that Ginsburg did not mention Buttigieg in the interview. And it is at least possible she has no idea who he is. She tends to keep busy. She said recently – and a little forlornly, we thought – her late husband, Marty, “was my clipping service with The New York Times and the (Washington) Post. I miss him every morning, because I have no one to go through the paper and pick out what I should read.”
What Ginsburg told Totenberg that caught the attention of Journal columnist James Freeman is, “she does not favor proposals put forth by some Democratic presidential candidates who have advocated changing the number of Supreme Court justices if the Democrats win the presidency.”
Buttigieg is one of them.
“Nine seems to be a good number,” Ginsburg said. “It’s been that way for a long time. I think it was a bad idea when President Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the court ...
“If anything it would make the court look partisan. It would be ... one side saying, ‘When we’re in power, we’re going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who would vote the way we want them to.’”
Speaking in D.C. at an event sponsored by Duke Law, Ginsburg ventured into waters she must have known were more troubled, when she sailed to the defense of fellow justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch: “I can say that my two newest colleagues are very decent and very smart individuals.”
Hearing this, a professional acquaintance said, collegiality is essential for the Court’s day-to-day functioning. He is absolutely correct.
We would only add that we wish it were true for the nation’s daily operation, but there are too many people today who will say it is those who are civil in the face of injustice who are the traitors and cowards – and, why are we even assuming the nation works?
Such are our times.
Ginsburg also has repeatedly praised Kavanaugh for hiring women as law clerks, ensuring that for the first time there are more women than men clerking at the Court.
There are people who adore Ginsburg, there are people who believe the Court’s credibility was hopelessly marred when Kavanaugh was confirmed, and those two groups may have significant overlap.
There were also people who believed the Court’s integrity was hopelessly impaired after it decided the case of Bush v. Gore, in 2000, giving George W. Bush the presidency following a disputed Florida recount. Speaking of it now with Totenberg, Ginsburg said, “I dissented from that decision. I thought it was unwise. A lot of people disagreed with it. And yet the day after the court rendered its decision, there were no riots in the streets. People adjusted to it. And life went on.”
It could be that the greatest thing RBG has to teach the nation is the most ordinary: We have disagreements about a candidate for the Court, or about abortion, or an election and a recount, and they do not have to lead to riots in the street.
We can be collegial, and life goes on. Really, we ought to be thankful for that.