My Own Words

Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, with Mary Hart­nett and Wendy W. Williams
  • Review
By – January 4, 2017

My Own Words was sup­posed to be the sec­ond of a planned two-vol­ume auto­bi­og­ra­phy by Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, but it has been released first. Her first pub­lished book since her appoint­ment to the Supreme Court in 1993, it is a com­pelling doc­u­men­tary his­to­ry that fea­tures selec­tions from key speech­es, arti­cles, briefs, and deci­sions that tell the sto­ry of her life and career.

We get a sense of Ginsburg’s life, both as a per­son and a Jus­tice. The intro­duc­tions and sum­maries through­out the book give us a rich bio­graph­i­cal sketch that frames the doc­u­ments beau­ti­ful­ly. The first sec­tion includes some of her own ear­li­est writ­ing — for her high school news­pa­per — as well as trib­utes to her by her late hus­band, with whom she shared five decades of mar­riage, as well as her own trib­utes to Antonin Scalia, her close col­league (and fre­quent spar­ring part­ner) for over two decades on the Supreme Court. Oth­er speech­es and arti­cles describe her expe­ri­ence of day-to-day life at the Court, as well as her reflec­tions of how that has changed — or not — in her two and a half decades there.

The motifs that run through this almost sur­pris­ing­ly read­able book are less about legal doc­trine and more about peo­ple. The intro­duc­tion to the sec­ond sec­tion of the book notes her par­tial­i­ty to the väg­märken, or way-pavers, who came before her. This plays itself out both in terms of the atten­tion Gins­burg draws to the women whose prece­dents paved the way for Ginsburg’s own career, as well as those whose legal argu­ments formed the lib­er­al tra­di­tion that she draws upon. The speech­es and arti­cles in this sec­tion, trib­utes to the women in whose foot­steps Gins­burg sees her­self fol­low­ing, are strik­ing both in the inti­mate, col­or­ful detail she gives to them and the sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty and pur­pose that she draws from them. From them, we can also under­stand how she sees her own place as a role mod­el for those who look up to, and ral­ly around, her own life sto­ry and legal record.

Even her legal doc­trine itself is about peo­ple. As opposed to the strict orig­i­nal­ists, like her late col­league and friend Antonin Scalia, she espous­es a liv­ing Con­sti­tu­tion” that fea­tures con­cepts and ideals with growth poten­tial” as rights and pro­tec­tions are extend­ed to peo­ple and groups that were once exclud­ed. She is an advo­cate of the pro­duc­tive pow­er of col­le­gial­i­ty, both between judges on the bench as well as between deci­sions, prece­dent, and soci­ety. Instead of see­ing judges as pla­ton­ic guardians” of laws brought down as if from on high, she is very aware that laws are pro­duced by a soci­ety to assert its val­ues and reg­u­late itself accord­ing to them. In short, laws are there to uphold the peo­ple as much as the reverse. These points come through in a series of selec­tions from the cas­es and speech­es that, to Gins­burg, are the high­lights of her life and times.

Relat­ed Content:

Avra­ham Bron­stein writes fre­quent­ly on top­ics of Jew­ish thought, con­tem­po­rary issues, and their inter­sec­tion. A past Assis­tant Rab­bi of The Hamp­ton Syn­a­gogue and Pro­gram Direc­tor of Great Neck Syn­a­gogue, he lives with his fam­i­ly in Scran­ton, PA.

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