Like many Americans, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg napped through a portion of the president’s 2015 State of the Union address. This was hardly important news—she was caught napping during the 2013 address, too—but the story made a splash anyway, helped by a widely circulated photograph. The kicker came a few weeks later, when Justice Ginsburg revealed what led to the snooze: She had been a bit inebriated during the president’s speech. “We sit there, stone-faced, the sober judges, but we’re not—at least I wasn’t—100 percent sober,” she said. The wisecrack prompted pundits on both sides to chuckle. Far from causing outrage or offense, the line added to the mystique of the oldest member of the Supreme Court.
The media report on Ginsburg more than on any other justice, and people gobble those stories up. There’s something adorable about a small, dainty, elderly woman who likes to stick it to the man. (“Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf,” she once recalled her mother-in-law-to-be telling her. “That advice has stood me in good stead. Not simply in dealing with my marriage, but in dealing with my colleagues.”) With her sharp wit and come-what-may attitude, she has cultivated a full-fledged persona with the public—call her “America’s bubbe”—unprecedented for a Supreme Court justice. Like popular and largely respected Democratic presidents (FDR, JFK, and LBJ), she can be readily identified solely by her initials: RBG.
Ginsburg, who cofounded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, is an opinionated jurist, and her salty, sometimes irreverent comments in court opinions and interviews have made her a mascot for the left. Progressive groups, like the Center for Reproductive Rights and the Human Rights Campaign, frequently “meme-ify” her to ask for donations and drum up support. Popular T-shirts for sale carry droll taglines like “Can’t spell ‘Truth’ without ‘Ruth’ ” and “Don’t be a hater, it’s Ruth Bader.” Last Halloween, blogs lit up with the story of a mother who dressed up her infant son as “Ruth Baby Ginsburg”—complete with large-framed glasses and a jabot—and another woman made headlines in January for having a likeness of the judge tattooed on her upper arm. There’s even an entire blog—“Notorious R.B.G.,” a reference to murdered rapper Notorious B.I.G.—devoted to cataloguing Ginsburg memes and stories in a way that makes her seem cool and tough, like the rapper. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham wasn’t wrong when he wrote that a “supreme cult of personality” has sprung up around Ginsburg.
All of which might seem odd, because Americans typically reserve their political hero worship for holders of the highest elected offices. Ronald Reagan inspired nearly as much adoration among conservatives as Barack Obama once did among liberals. But the landscape has changed in many ways since 2008. Political figures are now turned into memes—which makes them easier to laugh at but harder to criticize earnestly. Take Joe Biden (please). If Ginsburg is America’s hardheaded but lovable Jewish grandmother, Biden is the embarrassing but endearing uncle. The media—especially the quasi-progressive Onion, which features him as a recurring character in their made-up, satirical news stories—have helped turn the gaffe-prone vice president into the bumbling but ultimately harmless “Uncle Joe,” allowing his admirers to laugh off his more offensive blunders (such as his off-color terms for Jews and Asians).
Ever since George Washington left office, American politicians have used charisma and personality to improve their chances of winning elections. But jurists have always been immune to such concerns. The Framers insisted that judicial rulings be determined by the merits of the arguments, not the will of the public. That’s why Supreme Court justices aren’t elected by the people or their representatives and hold lifetime tenure.
By and large, the Court’s members have embraced the insulation and professional privacy afforded them by the Constitution. They have seldom sought the spotlight, preferring to appear disinterested and even boring—“sober,” as Ginsburg put it. So only in truly exceptional cases, such as Chief Justice Roger Taney’s ruling against the Lincoln administration in Ex parte Merryman, have they emphatically challenged particular politicians’ particular policies.