View Photo Gallery: As she begins her 21st term, a look at Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career
Who dreamed up this bit of kismet? How did the stars align to make this spot of New Mexico desert the best place in the world on a late summer evening to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Ginsburg is doing what she always does this time of year. On a respite from one of her passions — the law — she is indulging the others: opera and family. Ginsburg considers the Santa Fe Opera the finest summer opera company in the world. For years, first with her late husband, Marty, and now with her children and grandchildren, she spends a week in Santa Fe, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and when she returns east she says to herself: “What happened to my sky?”
There are tours of the countryside and hikes in the hills. There is VIP access to the works of Georgia O’Keeffe. There are sumptuous dinners prepared by her daughter, Jane, that last until 2:30 in the morning.
She has gathered an eclectic and artsy circle of friends, who throw luncheons in her honor for whomever happens to be in town. Kaye Ballard, the singer who toured with the Spike Jones Orchestra in the 1940s and whose Web site advises, “By the way, not only am I still here ... I’m still AVAILABLE,” is here. She snaps photos of Ginsburg on her iPhone and insists on getting her menu autographed.
The hostess, Winnie Klotz, a former dancer and for decades the photographer for the Metropolitan Opera, startles the gathering by grabbing her 84-year-old ankle and lifting it straight above her 84-year-old head. “Do I have your attention?” she asks. Apparently unsatisfied with the response, she slides into a split on the floor of Harry’s Roadhouse.
Ginsburg says later: “She does that all the time.”
At night, there is always opera, which Ginsburg considers “the perfect art form,” and on this night, it is one that brings together Ginsburg’s worlds of law and culture. It is the closing performance of the world-premiere run of “Oscar,” a new opera about the gay playwright and essayist Oscar Wilde and his conviction in 1895 on charges of “gross indecency.”
The opera was nine years in the making and serendipitously debuted four weeks after the Supreme Court’s first rulings on same-sex marriage resulted in important victories for gay rights. No one in the audience needed reminding that Ginsburg was in the majority in those cases.
She slips into the grand, open-air opera house through a side entrance, dressed in an elegant black jacket appliqued with white silk leaves. A tiny figure, hair as always pulled straight back and secured with a scrunchie, she is dwarfed by her security entourage.
The cast has asked to meet her at intermission, and her security bubble bobs against the tide of patrons. The sophisticated Santa Fe crowd keeps its distance. But in the wake of her slow and steady movements, there is the debate that is a constant companion for the 80-year-old leader of the court’s liberals, soon to begin her 21st term.
“We need her to stay forever,” says one woman after Ginsburg walked past.
“Or,” her companion replies, “leave right now.”
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. Three justices will turn 80 before Barack Obama’s term ends: Antonin Scalia, seat second from left, Anthony Kennedy, seated second from right, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, far right.
There are no set rules for when a justice leaves her lifetime appointment, although for Ginsburg there is no shortage of advice. The first justice nominated by a Democratic president in 26 years when President Bill Clinton chose her, she has been nudged to leave ever since the election of another Democratic president who could choose her replacement.
The court has four consistent liberals, including Ginsburg, and four consistent conservatives, and the justice in the middle, Anthony M. Kennedy, is a Ronald Reagan-nominee who more often than not sides with conservatives. If the court’s membership does not change before the 2016 election, the new president would see a Supreme Court with four of its nine members older than 77, including half of the liberal bloc.
“The reality of the court, and the parties, these days is that Ginsburg ... should know that a justice selected by President Rubio or President Jindal or President Cruz is going to produce a very different nation than one selected by Barack Obama,” wrote political scientist Jonathan Bernstein in The Washington Post. He was not the first.
Every Supreme Court justice, of course, is an expert in how presidential politics and timing and ambition and luck combine to produce a nomination. Ginsburg, for instance, never would have made history as the second woman to serve on the high court if George H.W. Bush had won reelection in 1992.