Relationship between Justices
While Ginsburg and O’Connor were not necessarily ideologically similar in their political views or in their decisions on the Court, their experiences as women in the legal profession helped them better understand each other and maintain a collegial relationship throughout their shared time on the bench.
One area where the two justices aligned were in rights for women. For example, in 1996, the Court heard United States v. Virginia, a case which asked the court to decide whether the male-only admission policy at Virginia Military Institute violated the constitutional rights of women. The majority had decided that the policy was, in fact, unconstitutional, but rather than write the opinion herself, as was the tradition for the senior member of the majority to do, O’Connor decided to give that task to Ginsburg. When Ginsburg announced the Court’s decision, she made a point of looking down the bench at her colleague as she cited O’Connor’s own opinion from 14 years earlier that ended sex-segregated admission policies in state schools.
When reflecting on the years they spent together on the Court, O’Connor and Ginsburg held each other in high regard. Whether or not they agreed on decisions being made in the Court itself, both women felt bolstered by the other’s presence as they navigated an environment that had never envisioned women among its ranks. From having to encourage the Court to build a women’s restroom to welcome Justice Ginsburg in 1993 (up until then, there had been no ladies’ room in the building) to finding a way to express sartorial flair through lace jabots or collars (a female complement to the male neckties the black robes were designed to display), to collaborating on decisions that validated women’s rights under the Constitution, Justices O’Connor and Ginsburg provided support for one another as they worked their way into history.
Ruth at the Opera
While the somber black robes worn by Supreme Court justices (and instituted by John Marshall) confer an air of seriousness to the individuals who wear them, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was someone who enjoyed a variety of non-legal pastimes. One of her favorite passions was a love of opera, which she shared with her Supreme Court colleague Antonin Scalia. In fact the two were even the subject of a comedic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derek Wang. After developing a love of music in her youth, thanks to piano and cello lessons, Ginsburg fell in love with opera after hearing a condensed version of La Giaconda at a high school performance in 1944. She went on to have a walk-on role in performances of Die Fledermaus and Ariadne auf Naxos, and even debuted in a speaking role (for one night only) in The Daughter of the Regiment, all at the Washington National Opera.
Female justices in the Court today
After Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement from the Court in 2006, Ginsburg remained the lone female justice on the bench until the appointment of Sonia Sotomoyor in 2009 by President Barack Obama. Elena Kagan joined them in 2010, also appointed by Obama, and the court continued with those three female justices until Ginsburg’s death in 2020. That same year, President Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett as Associate Justice, and as of today, the Court’s makeup is still only a third female.
The first female supreme court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (R), speaks as fellow Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg listens during a forum at the Newseum, in Washington, DC, April 11, 2012, to mark the 30th anniversary of O’Connor’s first term on the Supreme Court. REUTERS / Mike Theiler – stock.adobe.com