"RBG": A solemn, serious Supreme Court justice becomes richly human

As the summer TV season ends, a truly great film arrives. Some people have already seen "RBG" -- a deep and deeply engrossing portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- in movie theaters; now others can see it on Labor Day, via CNN. Here's the story I sent to papers:


By Mike Hughes

As they started
their “RBG” documentary, Julie Cohen and Betsy West seemed on
familiar turf.

Supreme Court
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was already famous. She was “The Great
Dissenter,” with strongly worded objections to the conservative
majority; some law students – via Internet and then a book – had
even made her “The Notorious RBG.”

Still, there were
fresh surprises, West said. The movie, which reaches CNN on Labor
Day, points to:

-- “The depth of
her romance with Marty (Ginsburg). And the role he played as the
supportive spouse.”

-- Her affinity for
people who seemed to be her opposite. Ginsburg, 85, has often seemed
stern, solemn, silent. Her late husband was none of those things;
neither was her late friend Antonin Scalia.

-- And the extreme
impact she had on women's rights. In the film, Gloria Steinem calls
her “the closest thing to a superhero I know.”

West – a
generation younger than Ginsburg – echoes that. “My life was
transformed by Judge Ginsburg,” she said. “Opportunities were
opened up that weren't available to our mothers.”

When Ginsburg
started Harvard Law School, she was among nine women in a class of
more than 500. When her granddaughter started, the class was 50
percent female.

And when Ginsburg
finished school (tied for No. 1 in her class), no New York firm would
hire her. She took alternate routes – a clerkship, co-authoring a
book on Swedish law (for which she learned Swedish), then teaching at
Rutgers. In 1972, she co-founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.

Many people know
Thurgood Marshall's role in civil rights; fewer had heard of
Ginsburg's. “She modeled her approach after Thurgood Marshall,”
West said. “It was a step-by-step approach.”

She took six cases
to the Supreme Court and won five times, creating building blocks for
gender law.

During this time,
Martin Ginsburg, a prominent tax lawyer, stepped happily to the
background, West said. “She had been a supportive spouse to him and
now he did the same.”

When she was a
17-year-old Cornell freshman, he had quickly impressed her, West
said. “He was a very gregarious, outgoing guy.”

She married him a
month after graduation and took a job near his Army base. Later, when
he landed a New York job, she transferred from Harvard to Columbia.
At one point, she was averaging two hours of sleep while studying,
nursing him through an illness and caring for their baby.

But as her career
soared, he stepped aside. In the film, one person recalls their
daughter explaining that “her father did the cooking and her mother
did the thinking.”

Ginsburg was
appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980 and was sometimes
viewed as a moderate, finding consensus with Scalia and Robert Bork.
“She wasn't a flaming liberal,” West said.

But after she
reached the Supreme Court in 1992, subsequent appointments nudged it
to the right. Ginsburg became the dissenter, sharply disagreeing with
Scalia, a guy with qualities like her husband's.

“Justice Scalia
was a very funny guy,” West said. He and Ginsburg “both loved
opera; she is very knowledgeable about opera. They had great respect
for each other as equals.”

Martin Ginsburg died
in 2010 at 78, Scalia in 2016 at 79. But Ruth Bader Ginsburg has
survived colon cancer and pancreatic cancer; she has even revealed a
comic side that many people weren't aware of. “She has a great
sense of humor,” West said. “Julie and I love to see her laugh.”

That's not the first
impression people have. “She is absolutely intimidating,” West
said. “She's small (5-foot, one-half inch) and quiet; she doesn't
fill up a lot of space.” Except in law books and history books.

-- “RBG,” debuts
9 p.m. ET Monday (Sept. 3), CNN, repeating at midnight.

-- Also, 8 p.m.
Sept. 9; times could change with breaking news