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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg On Protecting An Independent Judiciary


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a force on the U.S. Supreme Court for more than a quarter century. She has also fought cancer three times. Justice Ginsburg reflected on the motivating forces in her life, her advocacy for women's rights, her late husband Marty and her will to survive in an interview with NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: We started our conversation talking about cancer. Over the last 20 years, Ginsburg has undergone surgery three times - first for colorectal cancer in 1999, then 10 years later for pancreatic cancer and late last year for lung cancer. Last year's was the most difficult because her beloved husband Marty, who died in 2010, wasn't there.


RUTH BADER GINSBURG: My first two cancer bouts, Marty stayed with me in the hospital, sleeping on an uncomfortable couch despite his bad back. And I knew that someone was there who really cared about me. There was one day when I was getting a blood transfusion. And Marty saw that something was very wrong, and he immediately yanked the needle out of me. It turned out that there was a mismatch in some antigen. I might not have lived if he hadn't been there.

TOTENBERG: Marty, she said, was her rock. He buoyed her spirits, made her laugh, cooked delicious meals for her and provided grit when she needed it. He made her get out of bed when she didn't feel like it, pushed her to get a trainer who still helps her to stay in shape, read to her all manner of entertaining things, from Tolstoy to The New York Times. He was, as she put it, her clipping service.


BADER GINSBURG: I miss him every morning because I have no one to go through the paper and pick out what I should read.

TOTENBERG: Ginsburg has learned to take one day at a time. Her work and the court are her passions now, along, of course, with opera, literature and modern art. The reason that she and other justices try so hard not to be partisan, she says, is really quite simple. The court's only real currency is public confidence.


BADER GINSBURG: The court has no troops at its command. It doesn't have the power of the purse. And yet, time and again, when the court says something, people accept it. One example in the not-so-dim past was Bush v. Gore. I dissented from that decision. I thought it was unwise. A lot of people disagreed with it. And yet, the day after the court rendered its decision, there were no riots in the streets.

TOTENBERG: That, she says, is why the independence of the courts is so important in a democratic society.

At 86, Ginsburg has served on the court for more than a quarter century. And yet, when I asked her about her own accomplishments, she singled out the 10 years that she, as a lawyer, led the fight for women's rights. Does she worry that a more conservative court may now retrench on those rights?


BADER GINSBURG: I don't think there's going to be any going back to old ways.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, Ginsburg notes that Justice Byron White, one of the two dissenters in Roe v. Wade, the court's 1973 abortion decision, sided with her in all the gender rights cases she argued. White, as she puts it, was in her corner in all the cases testing whether women could be excluded from certain jobs or get fewer benefits.


BADER GINSBURG: When you think about it, the world has changed, really, in what women are doing. I went to law school when women were less than 3% of the lawyers in the country. Today, they're 50%. I never had a woman teacher in college or in law school. I mean, the changes have been enormous.

TOTENBERG: So does she have any regrets - professional regrets? Ginsburg looks at me as if I have three heads.


BADER GINSBURG: I do think that I was born under a very bright star because you think in my life, I got out of law school. I have top grades. No law firm in the city of New York will hire me. I end up teaching. That gave me time to devote to the movement for evening out the rights of women and men.

TOTENBERG: It also ultimately led to her appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court and her late-in-life status as an iconic star for young women.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

SHAPIRO: And to see video excerpts of Nina's interview with Justice Ginsburg, go to

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.