Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflects on career

Derek Draplin
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday said her lifelong passion for gender equality took shape back in the late 1960s when she began teaching a course about how the law treats women.

Decades later, as the oldest justice on the highest court in the country, the 81-year-old is now known as "Notorious R.B.G." by supporters who cheer her spirited defense of women's rights in the courtroom.

Ginsburg admitted during a lecture at the University of Michigan that "my law clerks had to tell me about the great B.I.G.," the late rapper who inspired the nickname. But she noted they both hailed from Brooklyn.

The moniker — and a "wonderfully amazing" Tumblr blog dedicated to Ginsburg — has helped make her a feminist icon. A book about her is in the works, "and they interview my personal trainer," Ginsburg said.

And she told the audience at the Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor that she has no immediate plans to step down.

"As long as I can do the job at full steam, I will stay in it, but when I begin to slip, as I inevitably will, when that happens that will be the time to go," she said.

UM President Mark Schlissel introduced the justice, whose talk was moderated by University of Michigan Law School professors and two of her former clerks, Scott Hershovitz and Kate Andrias.

Schlissel touted her as "one of history's most important legal pioneers and advocates of gender equality and justice for all."

Ginsburg reflected on some of the high court's best-known cases, from Roe v. Wade to the Hobby Lobby and Citizens United cases.

Ginsburg has been critical of the timing of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion, but not of its results.

"The court wrote a decision that made every law, even the most liberal, unconstitutional in one fell swoop," she said. "My thought was if the court had been more modest, again the change would continue to move in the direction which it was already moving; instead, there was one target for those who oppose a women's free choice, and that one target was Roe v. Wade."

One recent case Ginsburg hopes to see overruled is Citizens United v. FEC, in which the court ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to independent campaign contributions and cannot be restricted by the government.

"There will come a time, maybe not too far down the road, when the people are disgusted with this, and then the pendulum will swing the other way," Ginsburg said of the Citizens United case.

Another recent high court ruling, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, upheld the craft store's right to not offer certain forms of birth control as part of its healthcare plan. Ginsburg's criticism of that ruling drew applause from the audience.

"What they didn't have the right to do was to force their religious belief on the workforce that didn't share that belief," Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg said her constitutional interpretation is based on democratic values, as opposed to her colleague Antonin Scalia's originalist interpretation.

"My approach to the Constitution is influenced by the first three words 'We the people,' and if you go back to 1787, who were 'we the people'? A very select group," she said.

Ginsburg attributed her successful legal career to her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, and her children, Jane and James.

"I attribute my success largely to my partner in life, my husband, but also to my children," she said.

Ginsburg appeared at UM as part of the Tanner Lecture on Human Values, given by individuals "who have uncommon achievement and outstanding scholarly capabilities."

Michigan is one of nine universities that holds the lecture annually.