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Not Always Easy Being RBG, Ginsburg Jokes About Celebrity

Sept. 9, 2019, 11:48 PM

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joked that her celebrity life as “The Notorious RBG” isn’t all packed auditoriums and standing rounds of applause.

“I must say, sometimes it can be a little overbearing when everyone wants to take my picture though I’m 86 years old,” Ginsburg said Monday evening at the University of Chicago.

In more serious comments, Ginsburg at the event expressed exasperation over the long odds of enacting a number of changes in U.S. law and civic life, ranging from a less-contentious Supreme Court confirmation process to campaign finance reform.

“I don’t know what it will take, but we really should get back to the way it was when people were examining the qualifications of someone to be a judge rather than trying to guess how they would vote on contentious cases,” Ginsburg said when asked about the Senate confirmation process that’s become bitterly partisan.

Ginsburg also said that she didn’t see a groundswell of support for amending the Constitution to change the provision on lifetime appointments for Supreme Court and other federal judges.

Some in legal, policy and political advocacy circles over the years have floated the idea of eliminating lifetime appointments as part of broader changes to make the judiciary more efficient and the vetting process for judges less partisan.

Democrats, especially, have chaffed at the nearly 150 judges confirmed to lifetime seats by the Republican-led Senate as part of President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign pledge to reshape the courts with conservatives.

The Chicago event comes after Ginsburg underwent successful treatment in August for a malignant tumor on her pancreas, and less than a month before the next Supreme Court term begins. It was her fourth cancer scare following lung cancer surgery in December, early-stage pancreatic cancer treatment in 2009 and colon cancer a decade earlier.

As Ginbsurg was helped to her seat by an aide, she raised both arms and waved to an applauding auditorium.

In her hour-long interview with Katherine Baicker, dean of the university’s Harris School of Public Policy, Ginsburg recounted court opinions by name and by the year in which they were decided.

While she spoke often about “optimism,” she was not encouraging about the odds of overturning laws involving campaign finance and the Electoral College, despite her hope that those be changed.

As for the chances of seeing a less contentious confirmation process, Ginsburg said: “Maybe there will be great states people on both sides of the aisle who say, ‘Enough of this nonsense let’s do the work that we were elected to do for all of the people in the United States.’ I hope I will see that restoration in my lifetime.”

With her celebrity rising among liberals, Ginsburg has been visible and vocal this summer, despite her health setback.

Ginsburg has kept a busy schedule in recent weeks. She’s appeared at the University of Buffalo School of Law to receive an honorary degree, discussed her latest book at the National Book Festival in Washington, and sold out a stadium at the University of Arkansas with former President Bill Clinton.

And Ginsburg has five more speeches scheduled before the court term begins, according to SCOTUS Map—more than any other justice. Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch are both on book tours.

At an event held in Jones Day’s Washington office in July, Ginsburg blamed both political parties for “dysfunction” in the confirmation process. And in an interview with NPR in July, she said nine justices is “a good number” for the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg was asked what portions of the U.S. Constitution she would like to change, and she referenced a list of six amendments late Justice John Paul Stevens advocated as early as 2014.

“I would agree with most of the items on Justice Stevens’ list, including the Electoral College,” Ginsburg said. “But I think it is more theoretical than the prospect that we will have amendments of the kind [Stevens] wanted. I think he also included Citizens United, campaign financing, on his list.”

On how her celebrity has impacted her life, she told a story of how the nickname “Notorious RBG” came to be, when a second-year New York University Law School student posted her dissent to a blog in Shelby County v. Holder, involving discrimination in voting laws. The student was channeling her anger into something more positive, Ginsburg said.

“People wanted something positive, something hopeful,” Ginsburg said. “And so that is how the ‘Notorious RBG’ was born.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com