On Tour With Notorious R.B.G., Judicial Rock Star

She was at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah on Jan. 21 for the premiere of a documentary on her career. The next day, she was absent from the Supreme Court bench, asking Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to announce her majority opinion in a closely divided case in which she tangled with the court’s newest member, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

Then it was on to Rhode Island for a “fireside chat” at a law school and an appearance before more than 1,000 people at a Providence synagogue. Those engagements caused her to miss President Trump’s first State of the Union address. She had been a regular at President Obama’s addresses.

At the synagogue, Justice Ginsburg, who was sharply critical of Mr. Trump during the presidential campaign, said her talk had been planned before the date of his speech was announced.

“I’ll say no more,” she said. In response, a local reporter wrote, “the audience roared with knowing laughter.”

On Monday, after an appearance last week at a Washington synagogue, Justice Ginsburg opened a three-day stand in New York City, speaking to 450 people at New York University’s law school, with more watching from an overflow room. She spoke at a New York Law School luncheon on Tuesday and is scheduled to appear at Columbia University on Sunday.

The next day, she will be in Philadelphia, visiting both the National Constitution Center and the University of Pennsylvania.

Her New York appearances this week were studded with interesting remarks.

On Tuesday, for instance, she lamented the state of the Supreme Court confirmation process, recalling that Justice Scalia had been confirmed unanimously and that only three senators voted against her nomination.


Justice Ginsburg embracing a lawyer before taking the stage on Monday, where she recalled the years when she was the only woman on the court.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

“For the last four nominees, it hasn’t been that way,” she said, noting that there had been substantial partisan opposition to the nominations of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. She did not mention Justice Gorsuch, who was confirmed by a vote of 54 to 45.

“My hope is that someday it will get back to the way it was,” she said.

Her colleagues, she said, had offered extraordinary support during her two bouts with cancer. Justice David H. Souter, who avoided the Washington social scene before his retirement in 2009, accompanied her to the opera. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, offered her a choice of majority opinions to write when she was facing chemotherapy.

“It never happened before,” she said of the offer, “and it never happened since.”

On Monday, Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at N.Y.U., asked about a recent study that showed that female justices are interrupted more often than male ones.

Justice Ginsburg said the article had gotten her attention. “Let’s see how it affects my colleagues,” she said. “I think it well may.”

She recalled the years when she was the only woman on the court, between Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement in 2006 and Justice Sotomayor’s arrival in 2009. For those three years, she said, she shared the bench with “eight rather well-fed men.”

Professor Yoshino reminded her that she had delivered a famous lecture at N.Y.U. not long before she joined the Supreme Court. The lecture criticized Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.

The Supreme Court had moved too fast, Justice Ginsburg wrote at the time. It would have sufficed, she wrote, to strike down the extreme Texas law at issue in the case and then proceeded in measured steps in later cases to consider other abortion restrictions.

The trend in state legislatures in the early 1970s, she wrote, was toward more liberal abortion laws. The categorical Roe decision, she wrote, gave rise to “a well-organized and vocal right-to-life movement” that “succeeded, for a considerable time, in turning the legislative tide in the opposite direction.”

Her analysis is contested, as Justice Ginsburg acknowledged on Monday. “I know that there are many people who disagree with me on this subject,” she said.

Nadine Strossen, a former president of the American Civil Liberties Union and a law professor at New York Law School, also asked about her critique of the Roe decision. Justice Ginsburg did not retreat but again said there were two sides to the question. “This is a highly debatable topic,” she said.

Justice Ginsburg will celebrate her 25th anniversary on the court in August. She was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, who compared her work as a litigator for women’s rights to Thurgood Marshall’s work for racial equality.

The comparison was flawed, Justice Ginsburg said on Monday. “My life was never in danger,” she said. “His was. He went to a southern town in the morning, and he couldn’t be sure he’d be alive at the end of the day.”

On Tuesday, she said she still relished her work, recalling a satisfying behind-the-scenes victory. “I can’t disclose the opinion,” she said, describing a dissent she had drafted after a tentative 7-to-2 vote. Her draft persuaded five colleagues to sign it, and she ended up writing for the majority in a 6-to-3 decision.

“So,” Justice Ginsburg said, “it ain’t over till it’s over.”

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