The U.S. Constitution vests enormous authority in the nine unelected individuals who sit on the Supreme Court. They alone have the last word in defining and applying U.S. law.
Unfortunately, most Supreme Court Justices throughout our history have wielded their authority to maintain the social status quo on behalf of powerful private interests. This can be seen time and again in cases affirming:
- the constitutionality of slavery (Dred Scott, 1857);
- the legality of racial segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896);
- the lawfulness of the death penalty (Gregg v. Georgia, 1976);
- the right of corporations and the rich to spend unlimited sums on elections (Citizens United, 2010);
- and gutting the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013).
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in September at age eighty-seven from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, was one of the great exceptions. The “Notorious RBG,” as she became known in popular culture, devoted her life to the struggle for individual rights, with a special emphasis on gender equality.
The title of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's final book, Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue, is fittingly taken from a passage in Deuteronomy that she had inscribed on a piece of artwork that hung in her Supreme Court chambers. Co-authored by Amanda L. Tyler, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of Ginsburg’s former Supreme Court law clerks, the book was submitted for publication shortly before Ginsburg’s death, and includes a eulogistic afterword written by Tyler.
Confirmed in a 96-4 vote, Ginsburg spent the next 27 years establishing herself as one of the leading liberal Justices of the modern era.
At once a tribute and a mournful epitaph, the book consists of a collection of Ginsburg’s speeches and interviews, as well as the transcripts from two of the oral arguments Ginsburg presented before the Supreme Court while she was a practicing attorney in the 1970s. It also includes four judicial opinions that Ginsburg wrote during her tenure on the Supreme Court. Only one is a majority opinion—a 7–1 ruling that overturned the male-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute (United States v. Virginia, 1996). The other three are dissents:
- Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), which severely restricted the right of female workers to file pay equity lawsuits (this ruling was later overturned by the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009);
- Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which invalidated a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and
- Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), which let closely held corporations deny their workers coverage for birth control on religious grounds.
Tyler, in a touching introduction, emphasizes the late Justice’s extraordinary relationship with her husband, Martin, whom she wed in 1954 and who died in 2010. She also summarizes the highlights of Ginsburg’s formidable legal career, including her founding of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972 and her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993. Ginsburg was confirmed as only the second woman, after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to sit on the Court in a 96–3 Senate vote, a margin of approval unthinkable in today’s hyper-partisan environment.
During the next twenty-seven years, Ginsburg established herself as one of the leading liberal Justices of the modern era. Some court observers rank her alongside such legends as Louis Brandeis, John Marshall Harlan, Earl Warren, William Brennan, and Thurgood Marshall.
As comprehensive as this book aims to be, however, it falls short in a few key areas. First, there is no discussion of how much greater Ginsburg’s influence might have been had she not labored on a Court dominated by conservative jurists.
Also missing is any examination of Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench despite repeated serious illnesses at a time when the Democrats held both the presidency and the Senate. The book similarly fails to mention Ginsburg’s public criticisms of Donald Trump, who rushed to replace her with Amy Coney Barrett, her polar opposite .
Still, despite these gaps in coverage, Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue is a worthy addition to the rich and ever-expanding lore and legacy of RBG.