Thursday, June 22, 2017

Still learning from a Supreme Court justice -- June 22, 2017 column


News that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may become America’s next fitness star takes some getting used to.

Yes, she’s a lifelong champion of gender equality and civil rights.

She wrote the majority opinion in the landmark sex discrimination case United States v. Virginia. The ruling 21 years ago this week -- June 27, 1996 -- required Virginia Military Institute, after 150 years of male-only admissions, to accept women.

Yes, she’s a cultural icon and a hero to millennials, thanks to “Notorious R.B.G.,” a Tumblr blog that went viral in 2013.

A book by that title became a New York Times bestseller in 2015. Her picture is on T-shirts, mugs, shot glasses and hoodies. She’s been making a fashion statement with her signature fishnet gloves for nearly two decades.

Her consequential life is even the subject of a children’s picture book, “I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark.”

Yes, she’s an author. “My Own Words,” her book published last October, has brought her $204,000 in royalties, she reported in a recent financial disclosure.

But a gym rat – at the age of 84? Yes, that too.  

Ginsburg has been working out with personal trainer Bryant Johnson since 1999, after treatment for colon cancer left her weak and frail. She went back to the gym after surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2009.
Johnson’s pushup-and-tell book is coming out in October: “The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too!”

It’s a sign of how much American has changed that an accomplished jurist and “little old lady in tennis shoes” can also be a model for pumping iron.

Not everyone will rush out to buy Johnson’s book. The court’s most reliable liberal excites foes as well as fans.  

Last summer, she candidly criticized then-presidential candidate Donald Trump. “I can’t imagine what the country would be – with Donald Trump as our president,” she told The New York Times.

Trump responded with a tweet: “Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot—resign!”

Ginsburg doubled down. “He’s a faker,” she told journalist Joan Biskupic. “He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego . . .”

After a firestorm of criticism, Ginsburg said in a statement she regretted the remarks – and both sides retreated to their corners.

It didn’t have to be that way. In 1987, Justice Thurgood Marshall ripped President Ronald Reagan on civil rights, saying Reagan was at “the bottom” among presidents.

Instead of blasting Marshall, Reagan invited him to the White House and told him his life story. “That night, I think I made a friend,” Reagan wrote.

Friendship seems a quaint notion in Washington these days, but Ginsberg’s close friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she amicably disagreed on almost every legal issue, is legendary, literally the inspiration for an opera.

Ginsburg tells an enlightening story about their collegiality. While she was writing the majority opinion in the VMI case, Scalia, the sole dissenter, dropped off a draft of his stinging dissent.

“It absolutely ruined my weekend,” she said in an interview at the Aspen Institute last month but added she was glad to have the extra days to answer his points.

Asked about the current rancor in Congress, she recalled the Senate used to be called a gentlemen’s club. In 1986, that less combative Senate confirmed Scalia, whose conservative views were well known, with no negative votes. In 1993, it confirmed Ginsburg 96 to 3. 
Many think had Hillary Clinton been elected president, Ginsburg might have retired. Now, though, she shows no sign of giving President Trump another court pick.

“I will do this job as long as I can do it full steam,” she said at George Washington University in February. “When I can’t, that will be the time I will step down.”

Her regimen of pumping iron means her critics may have to wait a long time for that moment.

 ©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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