Dis­senter on the Bench: Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s Life and Work

  • Review
By – February 10, 2020

In Dis­senter on the Bench, Vic­to­ria Ortiz uses her per­spec­tive as an attor­ney and an edu­ca­tor to weave Ginsburg’s life and work togeth­er into one seam­less nar­ra­tive. Each chap­ter focus­es on one legal case in which Gins­burg was involved — as a judge or a Supreme Court jus­tice — clear­ly explain­ing both the facts and the sig­nif­i­cance of the issues pre­sent­ed. Then, Ortiz takes the read­er back to key events and touch­points in her Ginsburg’s life, estab­lish­ing how her per­son­al rela­tion­ships, evolv­ing intel­lec­tu­al and judi­cial inter­ests, and eth­nic and reli­gious back­ground all con­tributed to her con­sis­tent and coura­geous pur­suit of social justice.

Gins­burg was born into a mid­dle-class Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Brook­lyn in 1933. In Ortiz’s por­trait, she comes to life as a stu­dious and intel­lec­tu­al­ly curi­ous child, intent on pleas­ing her par­ents, but also pos­sessed of an incred­i­ble lev­el of self-moti­va­tion. Gins­burg intent­ly exam­ines each of her own beliefs and choic­es, and Ortiz’s method of care­ful­ly stat­ing facts and inter­pret­ing their cumu­la­tive impor­tance reflects this process as she builds her nar­ra­tive. The book begins with a descrip­tion of the 2009 Supreme Court case Saf­ford Uni­fied School Dis­trict v. Red­ding. The author dis­cuss­es in con­vinc­ing detail how Ginsburg’s child­hood expe­ri­ences cre­at­ed her com­pas­sion for young Savana Red­ding, who had been sub­ject­ed to an inva­sive search due to unrea­son­able sus­pi­cion that she was hid­ing drugs on her per­son. Ortiz jux­ta­pos­es a young Gins­burg who immersed her­self in read­ing about strong female char­ac­ters in lit­er­a­ture and his­to­ry with the old­er Jus­tice Gins­burg who stood up to the insen­si­tiv­i­ty of her male col­leagues and argued with their triv­i­al­iza­tion of Savana’s ordeal.

Ortiz is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive in out­lin­ing the defin­ing char­ac­ter of Ginsburg’s Judaism. Grow­ing up dur­ing an era of intense anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States and in the shad­ow of the Holo­caust, Gins­burg devel­oped an intense iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the social jus­tice tra­di­tion of her peo­ple. She is remark­ably bal­anced in her claim that Judaism’s insis­tence on human dig­ni­ty and free­dom, as well as its prob­lem­at­ic denial of author­i­ty to women, impact­ed Ginsburg’s sense of strength and con­vic­tion as a Jew­ish woman. Rather than dis­miss­ing the seem­ing­ly con­tra­dic­to­ry aspects of her tra­di­tion, Gins­burg inte­grat­ed her ratio­nal­ism and her emo­tions, bal­anc­ing her respons­es to achieve a work­able per­son­al vision.

The Passover Seder’s saga of free­dom and the prophet­ic voic­es of the Hebrew Bible were indeli­bly mean­ing­ful to Gins­burg but the exclu­sion of women from the minyan of wor­ship­pers, while mourn­ing her mother’s death, offend­ed her deeply. Instead of inter­nal­iz­ing bit­ter­ness, Gins­burg, who had been known as the rab­bi” when lead­ing prayers at her all-girls’ sum­mer camp became a mod­ern Deb­o­rah, using her wis­dom as a judge in the tra­di­tion of her Bib­li­cal role mod­el. Young read­ers may be sur­prised to learn of the assump­tion that mar­ried and preg­nant women had no right to expect equal employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ties. Gins­burg per­sis­tent­ly refused to accept this restric­tion; her pro­found­ly equal part­ner­ship with her hus­band, the late Mar­tin Gins­burg, is a mov­ing exam­ple of how the abil­i­ty to bal­ance fam­i­ly and career remains a cru­cial issue for women today.

Dis­senter on the Bench: Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s Life and Work includes appen­dices with the Bill of Rights and addi­tion­al explana­to­ry mate­r­i­al, as well as a bib­li­og­ra­phy. Numer­ous pho­tographs enhance this biog­ra­phy, which is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for teen read­ers and for adults inter­est­ed in learn­ing more about this Jew­ish Amer­i­can icon.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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