Justice Ginsburg Speaks: Women and the Law; Syria, Congress and the President and More

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Part II of this interview appears here.

In the decades before President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg quietly and strategically revolutionized Americans' understanding of women under the law. As Justice Ginsburg tells The Takeaway's John Hockenberry, "I didn't change the Constitution; the equality principle was there from the start. I just was an advocate for seeing its full realization." 

Ginsburg graduated first in her class from Columbia Law School in 1959, yet not one law firm offered her a job. She turned instead to academia, teaching the country's first class on women and the law at Rutgers Law School, and eventually establishing the Women's Law Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

From there, Ginsburg litigated landmark cases, including Reed v. Reed and Weinberger v. Weisenfeld, establishing legal scrutiny of gender-based classifications.

"I see my advocacy as part of an effort to make the equality principle everything the founders would have wanted it to be if they weren't held back by the society in which they lived," Ginsburg says. In the 1960s and 1970s, American society changed radically as Justice Ginsburg advanced her litigation career.

"I don’t think my efforts would have succeeded had it not been for the women’s movement that was reviving in the United States and more or less all over the world at the time," Justice Ginsburg explains.

By the 1970s, judges with daughters and granddaughters "began to recognize that some of, some of the so-called favors for women were not favors at all but they were locking women into a small piece of men’s wide world. So it was the change in society that opened the Court's eyes and made my arguments palatable when they would not have been a generation before."

While the Court usually refrains from commenting on current debates in Washington, Justice Ginsburg offers her opinion on the power of wartime presidents, as President Barack Obama and Congress debate intervention in Syria. While President Obama could take the lead in an intervention, Justice Ginsburg notes, "Congress could always stop the president if Congress thinks that what the president has done exceeds the president’s authority or is just wrong for the United States."

Even without a vote, Congress offers "tacit approval" to the president, if the legislative body does not act when the president exceeds his war powers authority. "I think there’s a shared responsibility, whether Congress takes formal action or not, for when the United States is acting in the interest of national security," Justice Ginsburg says.

The issues of technology and privacy have become a source of legal tension over the past few years, and Justice Ginsburg notes  that "there are just a host of problems born by the electronic age," as in the 2012 case U.S. v. Jones.

In the Jones case, the plaintiff claimed that the police attaching a GPS tracker to his car, without his knowledge, was a violation of unreasonable searches and seizure. Justice Ginsburg says, "I was amused by the analogy that Justice Scalia made in [the] case... Justice Scalia imagines a constable clinging to the bottom of a carriage as it went on its way, so there was some notion that this similar -- there is an official eye that’s on you, but you don’t know about it.

"Yes, there are all kinds of challenges," Ginsburg continues. "As De Tocqueville said, sooner or later in the United States, every controversy ends up in court. I think that’s a great – says great things about our judicial system."

Finally, at the age of 80, Justice Ginsburg comments on when she might retire. "As long as I can do the work full steam, I will stay on the Court," she says. "But when I feel myself slipping, when I slow down in my ability to write opinions with fair dispatch, when I forget the names of cases that I once could recite at the drop of a hat, I will know."

John Hockenberry with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
John Hockenberry with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ( Jillian Weinberger )
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ( Jillian Weinberger )
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking with John Hockenberry
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking with John Hockenberry ( Jillian Weinberger )