Ginsburg showing an independent voice

February 15, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Somewhere between the painstakingly careful writer who may read a sentence out loud to see if she made it clear enough and the tough-minded judge who "is ready to make decisions and not look back," Ruth Bader Ginsburg is emerging as a Supreme Court justice who mocks labels.

Halfway through her first term on the highest court, the shy but sometimes voluble justice is becoming noted for a distinct streak of independence, shown in everything from her tastefully modern chambers one floor removed from all her colleagues to her separate opinions staking out positions all her own.

"Ruth is very anxious to not be in the shadow for even the first term," says a friend, Vivian Berger, a New York lawyer and former law professor and civil liberties attorney. "She wants to make sure she's front and center; she wants to be sure she establishes a voice early on -- and that that voice is heard."

She has made enough of a personal mark already, in just four months, that some in the White House believe she would make a good chief justice someday.

President Clinton has made no commitments about that. But, says the president's deputy counsel, Joel Klein: "We're thrilled with her."

However seriously intended, the rumors about a potential promotion are another tribute to Justice Ginsburg's oft-demonstrated capacity to get favorable notices, both quick and enduring. Turning 61 in a month, she had three notable legal careers before becoming a justice: professor, women's rights lawyer and federal appeals judge.

She considers herself very lucky. Earlier this term, she told the court's in-house newsletter, The Docket Sheet: "I had the great good fortune to be born at the right place in the right time, to be born in the '30s instead of the '20s, and in the United States of America. I never could have, in any other country, in any other legal system, at any earlier time, used my legal training the way I did in the United States."

Only the second female justice in U.S. history, the newest member of the court already is a noted celebrity, getting batches of mail (not yet as much as her pioneering sister justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, but plenty for a beginner), and many demands for her photo portrait (she signs them individually rather than using the signature machine her colleagues employ). People recognize her instantly in Washington's stores and theaters -- a change for someone who was a rather obscure though important appeals court judge here for 13 years.

Friends like Ms. Berger say the justice is delighted with the job and totally comfortable in it.

"Ruth is like a kid in a candy store," Ms. Berger says. "She's just exploding, in many ways."

Others note that the new justice did not need a long break-in period, since many of the issues she now faces are akin to those she handled for 30 years as a lawyer, professor or judge.

In her interview with the court's newsletter editors last fall, Justice Ginsburg remarked: "It's important to be secure in your own judgment, to be ready to make decisions and not look back. . . . A judge should have the attitude [that] 'I can resolve this as well as, or probably better than, the next person. I'm as comfortable as one should be making the decision, and I'm not going to worry about it constantly after I've made it.' "

Sometimes shy

At times remarkably shy, she will talk with someone she does not know well with her chin pressed down and her eyes looking away uncertainly. At social functions, she tends to follow her gregarious husband, Martin, into encounters with the guests.

At the court, she was accepted quickly and warmly by her colleagues, insiders report. She brought with her a reputation of never taking sides in the bitter ideological and personal wars that her colleagues on the Circuit Court of Appeals here frequently waged.

Choosing a suite of offices on a different floor from those of her colleagues -- the first time that has happened in the nearly six decades the court has been in its present building -- was not a gesture of standoffishness, court aides say.

Rather, she simply liked the "light and airy" character of those offices; she can look out on a courtyard through the see-through curtains she chose instead of the formal and more customary drapes. She also has said that she liked the fact that the late Justice Thurgood Marshall had worked in those rooms after he retired.

There are times when her associates think she is serious to the point of severity (her children used to tease her for how seldom she laughed in their presence). Says one staff member: "She is not exactly a laugh riot."

Even so, Justice Ginsburg saw the humor in donning a white wig and a period gown to appear as an extra in a Washington Opera production in January. Her theatrical companion: a costumed and bewigged Justice Antonin Scalia, a long-time friend and a past and current benchmate.

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