Let's look at Liptak's article as opposed to the front-page teaser, which says: "Amid calls from some liberals that she step down in time for President Obama to name her successor, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she was fully engaged in her work." Think about why that is the teaser. But Liptak is writing because he got an interview:
Unless they have a book to sell, Supreme Court justices rarely give interviews. Justice Ginsburg has given several this summer, perhaps in reaction to calls from some liberals that she step down in time for President Obama to name her successor.So maybe Ginsburg is talking because of political pressure about Obama's appointment opportunities, but I find that hard to believe. She's obviously not talking about that, so it's an editorial insertion, and it's therefore what the NYT editors think will pique the interest of readers. To me, a reader, it seemed really dumb, flaunting the nonnewsiness of the article. Here's another Obama-related insertion:
Were Mr. Obama to name Justice Ginsburg’s successor, it would presumably be a one-for-one liberal swap that would not alter the court’s ideological balance. But if a Republican president is elected in 2016 and gets to name her successor, the court would be fundamentally reshaped.In case you didn't know!
So. Onto the substance of the interview:
“I am now the most senior justice when we divide 5-4 with the usual suspects,” she said.What if it's measured in terms of acceptance of the duty to enforce the Constitution? That's a trick question. Answer: It's the same thing! (And that makes this post another occasion for my favorite tag: Paraphrase.)
The last two terms... were... “heady, exhausting, challenging.”
“[I]f it’s measured in terms of readiness to overturn legislation, this is one of the most activist courts in history.”
The article goes on to talk about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which was a congressional response to Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, in which Ginsburg dissented. She notes that there were 2 Title VII case this past term, but that Congress is unlikely to reverse them by statute, because, she says, "this Congress doesn’t seem to be able to move on anything," and: "In so many instances, the court and Congress have been having conversations with each other, particularly recently in the civil rights area.... So it isn’t good when you have a Congress that can’t react."
Do you see Liptak's sleight of hand there? He went from her characterization of the Court as activist because of its "readiness to overturn legislation," to the idea of legislation overturning a court decision, but Congress can't overturn a decision that "overturns" legislation, and Ledbetter wasn't a case that overturned legislation! Ledbetter was an interpretation of a statute, so Congress was free to amend it and did. To interpret a statute isn't to overturn it. It's to read it, and Congress can change the text if it doesn't like that reading. It's not "activist" to decline to give an expansive interpretation to a statute, which is what Ginsburg wanted in her Ledbetter dissent.
When a statute is overturned because it's inconsistent with the Constitution, you can call that "activist" or you can call that meeting a judicial duty, but you can't go to Congress to get that decision overturned. [NOTE: Congress can initiate a constitutional amendment, and there are sometimes ways to rewrite a statute to solve a constitutional problem. I don't think Ginsburg was referring to that.]
Ginsburg does display some resistance to activism with respect to constitutional rights:
She said that as a general matter the court would be wise to move incrementally and methodically. It had moved too fast, she said, in Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion. The court could have struck down only the extremely restrictive Texas law before it.Hmm. Why not?! I'm guessing it's because Roe v. Wade is already decided. Nothing she can do will change that. The same-sex marriage issue is not yet completely resolved, and she will, in most likelihood, participate. That's a reason to simply refuse to talk about it, but I suspect, in addition to that, she will embrace the right with even more breadth and confidence than the Court in Roe v. Wade accepted abortion. This notion of allowing the difficult matter to be worked out in the political process... she won't make a connection.
“I think it’s inescapable that the court gave the anti-abortion forces a single target to aim at,” she said. “The unelected judges decided this question for the country, and never mind that the issue was in flux in the state legislatures.”
The question of same-sex marriage is also in flux around the nation. In June, the court declined to say whether there was a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, allowing the issue to percolate further. But Justice Ginsburg rejected the analogy to the lesson she had taken from the aftermath of the Roe decision.
“I wouldn’t make a connection,” she said.
In my Constitutional Law II exam last spring, written before the Supreme Court's decision in Windsor, I began a question this way (boldface added):
Here’s a section from one of the briefs in United States v. Windsor, the case in which the Supreme Court is considering whether a section of the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.Of course, Justice Ginsburg didn't agree with the side that wrote that. She showed — to use her definition of activism, above — a readiness to overturn legislation.
The benefits of our federalist system resonate with especial clarity regarding the same-sex marriage debate…
Preemptively short-circuiting the democratic process by announcing only one permissible policy choice by any government under the Constitution destroys these benefits and should not occur unless the Constitution clearly mandates the legitimacy of only one outcome. The Nation's experience in the wake of Roe v. Wade bears this out. See Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade, (remarking that Roe has "sparked public opposition and academic criticism, in part . . . because the Court ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action). J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, (observing that Roe "shut down this process of legislative accommodation, polarizing the debate and making future compromise more difficult," leading "[m]any scholars" to comment on the "Roe backlash" and the intense partisan divide that has resulted).
Outrage in the wake of Roe occurred despite increasing public support for abortion and a "marked trend in state legislatures 'toward liberalization of abortion statutes."' Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Speaking in a Judicial Voice (quoting Roe v. Wade); see also Thoughts on Autonomy ("The political process was moving in the early 1970s, not swiftly enough for advocates of quick, complete change, but majoritarian institutions were listening and acting."). But the Court's "[h]eavy-handed judicial intervention was difficult to justify and appears to have provoked, not resolved, conflict." Thoughts on Autonomy, supra, at 385-86. Unlike the Court's previous decisions concerning gender classifications, Roe provoked backlash because it "invited no dialogue with legislators" and "seemed entirely to remove the ball from the legislators' court." Judicial Voice, supra, at 1205.
Not only did Roe produce conflict, it was also an ineffective engine of social change. The Court's abrupt adjustment of national policy "may have prevented state legislatures from working out long-lasting solutions based upon broad public consensus." Cass R. Sunstein, Three Civil Rights Fallacies. Professor Sunstein observed that Roe's effectiveness "has been limited, largely because of its judicial source."