While walking the streets of New York City’s Upper West Side this past fall, I happened upon a vibrant, independent bookstore called Book Culture. As I enjoyed perusing the stacks and petting the local dogs who were leashed to their soy candle sniffing owners, it became clear that I was in the right kind of bookstore, with its mix of fun mugs proclaiming “I like big books and I don’t know why,” as well as a menagerie of Ruth Bader Ginsburg literature and memorabilia. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is probably the only American Supreme Court Justice with gum, calendars and an adult colouring book sporting her visage. She has a cult-like following akin to pop icons. However, her pedigree was forged by decades of legal activism reaching back to the early seventies when she headed up the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. She was not the first female American Supreme Court Justice, but her name calls to the fore seminal gender equality cases related to estates, pay equity, and pension discrimination. She was also active in using the Constitution to expand abortion laws and to quash “male only” admissions policies in American educational institutions. Prior to Ginsburg, all these practices were legal and flagrant.
My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with contributions by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, contains selections of Ginsburg’s publications reaching back to the 1970s and forward to 2016. It chronicles, in a quasi-chronological, but thematic manner, areas of her legal activism from advocating for the elimination of gender discrimination to more recent briefs dissenting Supreme Court majority rulings. This book is divided into five sections, each with an introduction that provides background to Ginsburg’s work. The introductions are somewhat redundant, but furnish non-specialists and international readers with necessary context. Energy, within this 400-page collection, bounds out of Ginsburg’s concise and pointedly written arguments, speeches, and statements. She writes dissents with a keen historical awareness and a nod to posterity.
The appointment of a U.S. Supreme Court judge affects the interpretation of the American Constitution for decades and in some cases half a century. By comparison, Canadian justices have a mandatory retirement age of seventy-five. Some could argue that the current U.S. President is attempting to gerrymander the unelected third branch of the federal government by appointing highly partisan justices like Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. These judges have a long history of ruling in favour of corporations and against progressive values. Ginsburg, at almost 86, holds an important position on the bench as a progressive. The national preoccupation with Ginsburg’s health taps into a well-founded fear. When Justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, the Republican Congress stonewalled President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. This provided the next President with a highly important ideological opportunity. Behold Gorsuch.
My Own Words is not a Ginsburg biography per se, but it is an excellent way for readers interested in Ginsburg to also dip their toes into the compelling and dirty waters of American constitutional history. Yes, the book dabbles in biography, but more importantly it is a well-timed reminder of how hard people like Ginsburg have worked, fighting to have equality and human rights recognized legally. The warnings in this book remind those of us north of the 49th parallel of the sanctity of the Supreme Court at a time when a neophyte and ravenous Ontario Premier threatens to invoke the ‘notwithstanding clause’ of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in order to muscle his ideology through Ontario schools.