To anyone who believes Supreme Court justices speak only in pronouncements handed down like chiseled tablets from Mount Sinai, Jeffrey Rosen’s Conversations With RBG will come as a revelation. Drawn from eight public and private interviews conducted over the past decade, these candid and often deeply personal conversations provide insight into the life of a woman who has gracefully navigated the roles of passionate advocate, discerning judge and loving wife and mother.
Rosen, who’s been writing about the Supreme Court since 1992, and who currently serves as president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, is a friendly interlocutor. When Ginsburg sat on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Rosen served as a law clerk, they bonded over their mutual love of opera. His questions in this book are well-informed but friendly, designed to draw out the naturally diffident Ginsburg rather than to provoke controversy.
Each of the book’s chapters is structured around a theme, such as Roe v. Wade—a decision whose outcome Ginsburg welcomed but whose reasoning she criticized, almost costing her a seat on the Court—or her 56-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg, a prominent tax lawyer. Rosen provides a brief introduction in each chapter and then proceeds in a question and answer format to explore the pertinent topic.
Though most of the book deals with Ginsburg’s 26-year career on the Supreme Court, where she has evolved from a “judicial minimalist” to the vigorous dissenter lionized as “The Notorious RBG,” Rosen also devotes a chapter to her work as an advocate for women’s rights for the ACLU in the 1970s. In those cases, portrayed in the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex, she successfully pursued a seemingly paradoxical strategy. By pointing out how challenged laws discriminated against men, Ginsburg eventually undermined gender-based discrimination against women.
As she approaches her 87th birthday in 2020, having dealt with several episodes of cancer, Ginsburg maintains her vigorous work schedule. Facing life in the minority in a Court that’s currently divided 5-4 along ideological lines, she nevertheless remains “skeptically hopeful” that a pragmatic Chief Justice John Roberts will act as a check on his fellow conservatives’ more ideologically driven impulses. Ginsburg, ever the optimist, believes we’re “constantly forming a more perfect Union, which is what the Founders intended.” Conversations With RBG is an enlightening look at her vital contribution to that process.