My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Law Library Stacks: KF8745 .G56 A3 2016
Book Review by Eric Taylor, Evening Reference Librarian
My Own Words is a delightful read. The words and stories are hers. A woman ahead of her time. Lucky in love to have met life partner, Marty, who was her champion in all things. The strong work ethic and independent streak she got from her mom. A mother herself juggling work-life balance. An avid reader from early on who also happens to love opera. These are some of the pictures her stories paint.
Arranged in five Parts, the book includes editorials, speeches, tributes, remarks on some of the major cases of our era, and essays on the work of a Justice on the Supreme Court of the United States. Each Part, and their attending chapters are set up with short introductions by Justice Ginsburg’s official biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.
The collection begins with an editorial she wrote for her school newspaper in 8th grade. The year is 1946, just after WWII, and she writes: “Since the beginning of time, the world has known four great documents, great because of all the benefits to humanity which came about as a result of their fine ideals and principles.” She is speaking about the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. “And now we have a fifth great document, the Charter of the United Nations.”
One piece not written by Ruth, but rather her husband, Marty, comes in the form of remarks he made as he introduced the Honorable Ruth Ginsburg on the occasion of the 20th Anniversary of Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program at Georgetown University Law Center in 2003. A man full of wit and good humor, and as you can tell by his comments, lots of love and admiration for his wife.
The legal profession was not populated by many women when she graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959. She was a trailblazer, but by no means alone. In Part Two, she offers tribute to other women who have led the way. These include historical figures such as Belva Ann Lockwood, the first woman to argue a case before the nine Justices, and the brave Anne Frank, as well as, contemporaries like Sandra Day O’Connor, and Gloria Steinem. Ginsburg writes of Justice O’Connor’s approach to all things: “Waste no time on anger, regret or resentment, just get the job done.”
The 1970s saw Ruth Bader Ginsburg use her legal skills to advocate and advance the cause of women as equals before the law. The decade was very productive for her, and many other women, as gains were made legally and socially. The chapters in Part Three speak to her role in this movement, one of which, “The Frontiero Reply Brief” marked her first oral argument before the Supreme Court in 1973. That same year she wrote in the ABA Journal “The Need for the Equal Rights Amendment.” Despite the ERA’s failure in 1982 three states short of ratification, the cause of gender equality had moved forward.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1980. President Bill Clinton then appointed her to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993. The selections in Part Four include her Rose Garden Nomination Acceptance Speech, and Opening Statement before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Part Five – The Justice on Judging and Justice – is by far the longest in the book and begins with “Workways of the Supreme Court” in which Justice Ginsburg describes the “procedures at my workplace.” She explains “one cannot get a firm grasp on the substance of our decisions without some grounding in the rules, practices, and traditions that frame our decisionmaking.” The next two chapters speak to “Judicial Independence” and the work of the Chief Justice in her “Tribute to Chief Justice Rehnquist.”
The chapters that follow return to two themes so very central to this book: human rights and the administration of justice. In “Human Dignity and Equal Justice Under Law,” Justice Ginsburg speaks about Brown v. Board, and Loving v. Virginia to reflect on the pivotal role these decisions have had in advancing the cause of freedom and equal protection under law for all. Loving was decided by unanimous decision, but many others are not. Part Five also includes a section on the role of dissenting opinions, and the bench dissent. In her own words, you can read seven of her recent bench dissents in cases such as Ledbetter, Sebelius, and Hobby Lobby.
No review would be complete without a story about Ruth’s love for the opera. It is well known she and Justice Antonin Scalia shared this passion. Composer Derrick Wang penned “Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportions” a comedy in one act inspired by the two Justices’ opinions and the operatic precedent of Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Bizet, Sullivan, Puccini, Strauss, et al. (see 38 Columbia Journal of Law and Arts 237 (2015)). She writes in preface “If I could choose the talent I would most like to have, it would be a glorious voice.”
This collection of short stories shine a light on the arc of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career. Each one is unique, special, and enjoyable to read in their place. Together they form a much fuller picture of one of the most intelligent, worldwise, and thought-provoking jurists of our time. Readers can delight in the fact there is a full-length biography underway to be published when the time is ripe.