Local author chronicles life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Dr. Jane Sherron De Hart never envisioned how timely her newly published book, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life” (Alfred A. Knopf, $35), would be when it was released last October.
Since the diminutive Supreme Court Justice has been dubbed the “Notorius RBG” and the documentary “RBG” has been nominated for an Academy Award, Justice Ginsburg has become something of a pop culture icon.
“Notorious RBG,” a fan Tumblr, was created by law student Shana Knizhnik in 2013 after Justice Ginsburg’s firm dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, which stripped the Voting Rights Act of 1965 of its power to fight discrimination against poor and minority voters at the polls. It was her fifth public dissent during that term, and after six decades of smashing glass ceilings for women and men with quiet intensity, RBG raised her voice — and quickly became a social media darling, according towww.womenintheworld.com.
Dr. De Hart, a Santa Barbara resident and UCSB professor of history emeritus, told the News-Press she never planned to write a book about Justice Ginsburg when they first began meeting annually on Friday afternoons on Labor Day weekend in the Supreme Court Justice’s chambers.
“We had met in 1995 at a meeting of the Supreme Court Historical Society. I was working on another book about the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and I wanted to use Justice Ginsburg’s litigation as an example of the Supreme Court’s policy. Ruth wrote the brief, but the papers weren’t available. I wrote to her, and she offered to show me her records,” said Dr. De Hart, author of “Women’s America: Refocusing the Past” and “Sex, Gender and the Politics of the E.R.A.: A State and Its Nation.”
“At the meeting of the society, I wanted to thank her in person for making the papers available to me, but I was reluctant to interrupt her conversation with Justice (David) Souter. I knew she didn’t like small talk, but when there was a gap in the conversation, I mentioned a mutual friend we had. Her eyes lit up, and she said, ‘I had a beer with him the last time he was in town.’ Before she left, she made a point of telling me to feel free to ask her any questions in the future. That was the start of our annual get-togethers,” said Dr. De Hart, 82.
Initially, she was interested in Justice Ginsburg’s litigation dealing with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“She was 40 at the time. I had no plan to write her biography, but I finally realized that I needed to understand the forces that shaped her before that age — her incredible persistence, her strategic brilliance,” Dr. De Hart said. “But when I began to ask about her childhood in Flatbush, N.Y., she said, ‘No, we don’t need to talk about Flatbush.’
“I told her that there had been different stories about her mother’s death, and I wanted to set the record straight. Ruth said, ‘I’ll give you half an hour,’ but she was not happy about visiting her years as an adolescent.”
Dr. De Hart said it took her six or seven years to get the information for what turned out to be the first chapter in her book, which is 723 pages long, including almost 200 pages of acknowledgments, notes to the pages, a bibliography, index and illustration or photo credits. The tome took her 15 years to write.
The book is filled with information about Justice Ginsburg’s professional and personal life, along with numerous photographs of her family, which includes her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and their two children, James and Jane. She also has four grandchildren.
During many conversations and hours of research, Dr. De Hart explored the experiences that shaped Justice Ginsburg’s “passion for justice, her advocacy for gender equality (male and female), her meticulous jurisprudence and her desire to make ‘We the People’ more united and the union more perfect,” she says in her book.
As a member for 26 years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg has lent her voice to countless crucial cases. Among them are the following three major rulings:
? United States v. Virginia, 1996: When 1996 started, the Virginia Military Institute was the country’s last remaining all-male public undergraduate college or university, but by the end of the year, that would no longer be the case, thanks in part to Justice Ginsburg. The United States filed a suit against the school, arguing that the gender-exclusive admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The court struck down VMI’s all-male admissions policy, with Justice Ginsburg writing the majority opinion that made it clear gender equality is a constitutional right.
? Bush v. Gore, 2000: Some of Justice Ginsburg’s most notable Supreme Court opinions were actually dissents, or disagreements from the majority decision — like in the case of Bush v. Gore, a story that remains a key moment in recent U.S. history. The case ended up at the Supreme Court after George W. Bush’s campaign filed an emergency application to stop a Florida Supreme Court mandate for a manual recount of the ballots in the 2000 presidential election against then-Vice President Al Gore. The Supreme Court granted Mr. Bush’s application, which gave Mr. Bush the victory in Florida and the national electoral college. Justice Ginsburg famously wrote in her opinion, “I dissent.” The phrase was a somewhat harsh departure from the court’s decorum, which means dissenting justices usually use the term “respectfully.”
? Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015: This landmark case granted same-sex couples the right to marry in all 50 states. As a former officiant of same-sex weddings and a promoter of LGBTQ rights, it’s thought that Justice Ginsburg’s outspokenness affected public opinion. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriage.
In her book, Dr. De Hart reveals a number of surprising facts about the justice.
“Ruth’s mother died two days before her high school graduation when she was the valedictorian. It was very painful. She didn’t even tell her friends. Her mother had always stressed about what women could accomplish, especially if they were Jewish. Because of this, Ruth was a feminist long before the word became popular.”
Despite her Jewish religion, Justice Ginsburg does not participate in formal religious services because only men can participate in the ceremony of shiva after a death.
“She was quite incensed about that,” said the author, who writes about another time when Justice Ginsburg’s granddaughter, Clara, came to visit from New York City.
“Ruth’s daughter, Jane, married a Catholic, and their two children could choose their religion. Clara was Jewish, and when she came to see Ruth, it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. ‘Bubbe (her pet name for her grandmother), we have to go the synagogue,’ she said. There, Justice Ginsburg was amazed to find a female rabbi and a female cantor conducting the services. She said, ‘If that had been the case when I was younger, things might have been different,’ ” said Dr. De Hart, who last saw her good friend in October in Washington, D.C.
“I was on my book tour and gave her a copy of the book with a special inscription,” she said, adding that she hasn’t heard Justice Ginsburg’s reaction yet. “We didn’t have time to talk because Ruth was taking her law clerks to the opera that night.”
Dr. Jane Sherron De Hart, author of “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life,” will be signing her book at the Celebrity Authors’ Luncheon at 10 a.m. March 16 at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, 633 E. Cabrillo Blvd.
She will also be speaking at 6 p.m. March 8 at the Friday service at Congregation B’nai B’rith, 1000 San Antonio Creek Road.
Her books are available at Chaucer’s Books, 3321 State St., and Tecolote Book Shop, 1470 East Valley Road in Montecito.
For more information, call 568-0068.