My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams)

Eight stars

Biographies of strong women are greatly appealing to me, which led me to acquire and commence this book by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supported (and likely guided) by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. It was only after I began reading that I realised that I was again not receiving a memoir or biography, but a compendium of thoughts and reflections by a female Justice of the US Supreme Court, known in the vernacular as the Notorious RBG. The reader attentive to my reviews will likely shake a shameful finger at me for not checking ahead of time, as I fell into the same pit when I tried a recently read by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Still, in pushing through this collection by Justice Ginsburg, I found myself pleasantly surprised and felt that these entries did provide a biographical account of her life, as well as some key moments in her judicial career. Hartnett and Williams did a masterful job of pulling things together and have, as is pledged in the preface, commenced work on an actual biography of Justice Ginsburg. A great piece to complement my earlier read of the aforementioned Justice O’Connor book, which provides strong arguments for equality and gender parity in America, as well as showing how legal matters are a quintessential part of the everyday lives of whose who live in democratic countries. Curious and legal-minded readers will likely enjoy this piece as they take Justice Ginsburg’s own words to portray the state of American (and world) jurisprudence into account.

Born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader became highly interested in the law at an early age, or perhaps the idea of equality, watching news of the Second World War fill headlines on a daily basis. The book offers a brief biographical background before presenting some public school publications the precocious Bader prepared, discussing the importance of the Rule of Law and how it promotes equality for all. Moving onto university and into law school, Bader (who would marry and become Ginsburg) showed her aptitude not only for equality, but promoted the idea of sex and gender parity in the United States. Attending law school at a time when she was still in the significant minority (both for her being a woman and Jewish), Ginsburg forged onwards and left with no job offers, even though she achieved high marks and showed great promise. Serving as an academic, Ginsburg fought tirelessly to put women on the map and promoted their equal protection under the law, as guaranteed in the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, though she was sometimes forced to wage war against the Almighty Congress and its many laws. Hartnell and Williams exemplify Ginsburg’s views in many speeches and summaries of key cases she fought, some reaching the Supreme Court, while never giving up in her attempt to push for complete equality amongst those who sought remedy. When elevated to the US Court of Appeal for the DC Circuit, Ginsburg took a different approach, defending the rights rather than advocating for them in numerous decisions (and dissents) from the bench. It was here that she met and fostered an early friendship with Judge Antonin Scalia (Nino), who may have been diametrically opposed to her ideological stance, but respected her a great deal. Their friendship continued through the years and the ideological clash resumed when Ginsburg became a Supreme Court Justice in 1993. The authors show how Ginsburg supports the varied sentiments of Justices on the Court, but remains firm of the collegial nature of the nine on a daily basis. Dipping into the appointment process to become a Justice of the Court, Ginsburg recounts the nervousness she felt and the smooth sailing she received at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Once on the bench, she began the role as junior Justice, guided by Justice O’Connor, who had paved the way for much success and injected that fresh perspective on the bench and in chambers. From there, Ginsburg schools the reader on some of the many quirks of the Court, including its procedures and its place in the larger international realm of judicial interpretation. Ginsburg does not seek to knife anyone in the back, but she does not deny the ideological divisions on the Court throughout her tenure that have pushed interpretations in many directions, including in the areas of abortion, affirmative action, campaign spending, and healthcare. The latter portion of the book focusses on some key dissenting opinions, particularly since the Roberts Court came to fruition, and she, Ginsburg, became the senior ‘liberal’ justice. Ideal for those who want a sneak peek into what might be to come in the biography, Hartnett and Williams provide the reader with a highly comprehensive piece that offers a wonderful examination of the life and legal thoughts of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I feel that I can justify this piece as part of the biography marathon I am undertaking, as there is a degree of wholeness to its narrative. Using speeches and comments made directly by the Justice, Hartnett and Williams paint the most honest and comprehensive view of the legal flavour of Ginsburg’s thought processes. While it is impossible to offer a complete view, the cross-section on offer and the variety of topics provide the reader with a great insight into this most interesting woman. However, as some others have brought to my attention, while the book is well constructed, repetition occurs and proves somewhat of a thorn in the side of effective flow. Speeches from an early chapter prove to have the same ideas and quotes embedded in later narratives. Some cases receive the same stress throughout the book, leaving the reader to ponder skimming to get to new and meatier subjects. That said, the impact is felt and the overall presentation is thoroughly captivating and sound in its foundational approach.

While I do not usually do this, I could not deny myself the right to comment on the different formats of the book. I listened to the audio version and thoroughly enjoyed it. What added to the experience was that the speeches and actual verbal delivery moments were captured, where possible, within the recording. Justice Ginsburg speaking to a group, delivering a dissent, or even offering a bench opinion. These ‘real life’ moments thickened the delivery and made it all the more powerful. I suspect that simply reading them on the written page might lessen the impact or leave the reader feeling out of touch with the delivery. The book is called MY OWN WORDS, so why not capture that by listening and hearing them as they came to pass?

Kudos, Madams Hartnett and Williams (alongside Justice Ginsburg herself) for this insightful piece. I cannot wait for the full biography to see more of your sentiments. Recent clashes with certain candidates and eventual victors will certainly add more spice and flavour to what you have already said.

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