Thursday, August 27, 2020

Book 248: My Own Words

"The institution we serve is ever so much more important than the particular individuals who compose the Court’s bench at any given time. And our job—the job of judging in a U.S. federal court generally—is, in my view, the best work a U.S. lawyer could wish for. We serve no client, our commission is to do what is right—what the law requires and what is just."

Dates read: July 11-17, 2018

Rating: 7/10

Growing up, my role model (and let's be honest, idol) was Sandra Day O'Connor. I wanted to be a lawyer and judge, and the first woman on the Supreme Court was the greatest person I could imagine. As I got older and better able to understand legal writing, she become a justice whose opinions I always appreciated reading, because in her fondness for balancing tests (while tricky to consistently administer) she seemed to always remember that while The Law is a mighty and important thing, it applies to actual people with actual lives and that is not less important than one's judicial philosophy. She remains someone who I profoundly admire, along with the other women who've been appointed to the highest court in the land: Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and everyone's favorite pop culture icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In the past several years, she's had books written about her, a documentary and a biopic hit theaters, and been made into an action figure (which I have on my desk as I type). She's become almost more of an idea than a person, which made My Own Words, a collection of her writings/speeches, organized with her co-writers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, all the more relevant to read. There is an actual woman beneath the mythologizing, and that woman is whip-smart and has a lot of important things to say that can't be slapped on a photo and turned into a meme. Not that I have any beef with that picture of her that says "all them fives need to listen when a ten is talking" in the Beyonce font, but in a world where complex thought is increasingly rare, we owe it to one of our best thinkers to really listen to what she has to say.

The book's collection of her writings has examples all the way from pre-teen editorials submitted to the school paper to oral announcements of Supreme Court dissents. That she is a serious, thoughtful person is obvious even in the early writings, and examples of her work as she pushed for gender equity at the ACLU and then was elevated to the federal bench demonstrate her prodigious intellect and ability to distill arguments to their essence. But it's not all ponderous and serious. There's a written version of remarks about the role of lawyers in opera and an excerpt from the comic opera that was written about Justices Scalia and Ginsburg's close personal friendship, which included trips to the opera, despite the gulf between their views on the law. There are a few pieces that were written/delivered by Gibsburg's beloved husband Marty, whose wit made me giggle in few places.

The co-authors are apparently working on an authorized full biography of Justice Ginsburg, and the way they've worked with the material they have here gives me high hopes that it'll be excellent. It can be challenging to edit down legal writing into something that can be understood by an audience not trained to read it, but between what's clearly Ginsburg's own facility with language and careful tweaks, the material will definitely require attention but isn't difficult to understand. That it's just relatively short vignettes may disappoint some who are looking for something more like a traditional biography, though there is interstitial writing to fill in the gaps and provide context. You do definitely get a sense of who she is through reading it, though. I'd highly recommend this for anyone who's interested in the law, as well as any RBG enthusiasts.

One year ago, I was reading: Death Prefers Blondes

Two years ago, I was reading: Oryx and Crake

Three years ago, I was reading: The Idiot

Four years ago, I was reading: Inamorata

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