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Exclusive Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg interview: Full transcript

Full text of Irin Carmon's exclusive msnbc interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Full text of Irin Carmon's exclusive interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, first aired during "The Rachel Maddow Show" at 9 p.m. ET on Feb. 16, 2015. The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

IRIN CARMON: Thank you so much. The first thing I wanted to ask you, when you were fighting for women's rights in the '70s, what did you think 2015 would look like? What's the unfinished business that we have, when it comes to gender equality?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Our goal in the '70s was to end the closed door era. There were so many things that were off limits to women, policing, firefighting, mining, piloting planes. All those barriers are gone. And the stereotypical view of people of a world divided between home and child caring women and men as breadwinners, men representing the family outside the home, those stereotypes are gone. So we speak of parent -- rather than mother and wage earner rather than male breadwinner.

That job was an important first step. What's left, what's still with us and harder to deal with is what I call unconscious bias. And my best example is the symphony orchestra. When I was growing up, one never saw a woman in the symphony orchestra, except perhaps playing the harp. People who should have known better like The New York Times critic, Howard Taubman said, "You could put a blindfold on him and he could tell you whether it's a woman playing the piano or a man."

Someone had the simple idea, "Let's drop a curtain. Let's drop a curtain between the people who are auditioning and the people who are judging." And almost overnight, there was a sea change. Once the curtain was dropped, the testers couldn't tell whether it was a man -- or a woman. And they made their judgments based on the quality of the performance.

Some years ago, when I was telling this story, a young violinist told me, "You left out something." "Well, what? What did I leave out?" "You left out that we auditioned shoeless, so they won't hear a woman's heels behind the curtain." That device of the dropped curtain isn't so easy to duplicate in other areas.

CARMON: So when we talk about unfinished business, you've been a champion of reproductive freedom. How does it feel when you look across the country and you see states passing restrictions that make it inaccessible if not technically illegal?

GINSBURG: Inaccessible to poor women. It's not true that it's inaccessible to women of means. And that's the crying shame. We will never see a day when women of means are not able to get a safe abortion in this country. There are states -- take the worst case. Suppose Roe v. Wade is overruled. There will still be a number of states that will not go back to old ways.

Remember that before Roe v. Wade was decided, there were four states that allowed abortion in the first trimester if that's what the woman sought. New York, Hawaii, California, Alaska. Other states were shifting. And people were fighting over this issue in state legislatures. Sometimes the pro-choice people were winning. Sometimes the pro-life people were winning. But there was lots of activity in the political arena. That stopped with Roe v. Wade, because it gave the opponents of access to abortion a single target.

CARMON: Well, now there's lots of legislative activity, right? And it's mostly in the direction of shutting down clinics, creating new barriers --

GINSBURG: Yes. But --

CARMON: -- in front of women.

GINSBURG: -- who does that- - who does that hurt? It hurts women who lack the means to go someplace else. It's almost like -- remember the -- oh, you wouldn't remember, because you're too young. But when most states allowed divorce on one grounds, adultery, nothing else. But there were people who went off to Nevada and stayed there for six weeks. And they got a divorce. That was available to people who had the means, first to get themselves to Nevada, second to stay there for some weeks.

Finally, the country caught on and said, "This isn't the way it should be. If divorce is to be available for incompatibility, it should be that way for every state." But the situation with abortion right now, by all the restrictions, they operate against the woman who doesn't have freedom to move, to go where she is able to get safely what she wants.

CARMON: You mentioned if Roe v. Wade is overturned, how close are we to that?

GINSBURG: This court is highly precedent bound. And could happen, but I think it's not a likely scenario. The court had an opportunity to do that some years ago. And they said in an opinion known as Casey that they would not depart from the precedent they had set. They did more than that. They gave a reason, a rationale that was absent in Roe v. Wade itself. Roe v. Wade was as much about a doctor's right to practice his profession as he sees fit. And the image was the doctor and a little woman standing together. We never saw the woman alone. The Casey decision recognized that this is not as much about a doctor's right to practice his profession, but about a woman's right to control her life destiny.

CARMON: But the court is differently composed, to use your phrase, than it was in Casey.

GINSBURG: Yes, that's true.

CARMON: Your two new colleagues -- who were appointed by Republicans.

GINSBURG: Think of -- a famous decision. It's known by the name of Miranda. It tells the police, "Before you question a suspect, you have to tell that suspect of his or her right to remain silent and to have a lawyer. And if the suspect can't afford a lawyer, to have one provided by the state."

That's routine now. That the police will give to people who are arrested. My former chief, Chief Justice Rehnquist, was highly critical of the Miranda decision. But when the question came up, "Would it be overruled?" he said, "No, it has become part of the culture." So he wrote the decision adhering to the Miranda opinion, even though he had several times criticized it.

CARMON: And you believe the same will be the case with Roe?

GINSBURG: I don't want to make any predictions. But precedent is important in this court.

CARMON: Excuse me. So as you know, I met with your trainer. I interviewed him. Lovely gentleman.

GINSBURG: He said you wouldn't try out my routine. [Laughs] He --

CARMON: Someday. I mean, I can't keep up with you, Justice Ginsburg, because [Clears throat] I heard you can do 20 pushups?

GINSBURG: Yes, but we do ten at a time. [Laughs] And then I breathe for a bit and do the second set.

CARMON: So lots of people worry about your health. They want to know are you cancer free? How is your health?

GINSBURG: I had my first chance in 1999. That was colorectal cancer. And it was a challenge. It was massive surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, the whole works. Then I was fine for ten years. And then, 2009, a tiny tumor in my pancreas was detected, very early. And I had surgery for that. So that's 2009. Now it's 2015.

The most recent episode occurred when I was with my personal trainer. And suddenly, my chest felt so constricted. And I broke out in a sweat. So I said, "Well, I stayed up all night last night writing an opinion. So I'm just exhausted. I'll rest for a while." I was very stubborn.

My trainer called my secretary -- my wonderful secretary, who had already gone home to Annapolis. She came back. And in her gently persuasive way, she said, "We're putting you in an ambulance and taking you to the hospital. You really must go." And of course, I got there. And they gave me an E.K.G. And it showed -- whatever it showed, they whisked me up to the catheter place.

And it was a blocked right coronary artery. As soon as they put this stint in, I was awake and in the procedure, groggy, but still awake. As soon as the stint was in place, I was fine. No more constriction in my chest. I wanted to go home. [Laughs] And they said, "No, we're not gonna let you go home. You have to stay here for two nights to be sure." I did that.

CARMON: Your trainer told me he often has to hold you back. That you want to go and work out the next day.

GINSBURG: Yes. Yes, I did.

CARMON: It was the same thing?

GINSBURG: I did want to go the next day.

CARMON: Other than that, your health --

GINSBURG: Other than that --

CARMON: -- is okay?

GINSBURG: -- It's fine.

CARMON: What have you changed your mind about?

GINSBURG: You asked me that question. And I just got that question from a group of eighth graders that I met with. I got very good advice when I became a judge of the D.C. circuit. My senior colleague, said, "Ruth, I'm gonna tell you something about the business of judging. You work very hard on each case. But when it's over, don't look back. Don't worry about things that are over and done. It's not productive to do that. Instead, go onto the next case and give it your all." So nothing leaps immediately to my mind that I would have done differently. But I don't dwell on that kind of question. I really concentrate on what's on my plate at the moment and do the very best I can.

CARMON: But you've never changed your mind about anything?

GINSBURG: I'm sure I've changed my mind about something. Inevitably, when we grow up -- as we get more experience and wiser. Well, I've changed my mind about some food that I didn't like when I was young. [Laughs] And now I do.

CARMON: I wanted to -- I wondered -- have you --

GINSBURG: I saw that. And I thought it was a joke. I thought it was something you pasted onto your arm. But I'm a little distressed that people are really doing that.

CARMON: Distressed why?

GINSBURG: Because why would you make something that can't be removed on yourself?

CARMON: Well, I --

GINSBURG: I mean, it's one thing to make holes. [Laughs] And that you can use or not. My granddaughter for a while was wearing a nose ring. Now she's not anymore. But a tattoo you can't remove.

CARMON: Well, I think it's because they admire you, that's why. This is the second tattoo I'm aware of. The other one has a picture of you. And it says, "Respect the bench."

GINSBURG: Well, that's a nice sentiment. [Laughs]

CARMON: But seriously, I mean, I am among the young women that looks at your life and sees so much to admire. What do you want young women who admire you to take away from your work?

GINSBURG: I would like them to have the enthusiasm that we had in the '70s -- determining that the law should catch up to the changes that have occurred in society, changes in the way people whatever, the realization that no one should be held back, boy or girl -- because of gender, artificial gender barriers. That everyone should be -- in the words of a wonderful song that Ms. Magazine popularized, everyone should be free to be you and me.

CARMON: I wonder, Justice, if you could give me one word, just one word that comes to mind when I say a few things. Just a fun little game. President Obama.

GINSBURG: The -- just one word?

CARMON: Please.

GINSBURG: President Obama? Well, let's say -- sympathique. That's a French word. It means more than sympathetic. It means who cares about other people.

CARMON: Brooklyn.

GINSBURG: My birthplace. I am so proud of being born and bred in Brooklyn. And of what Brooklyn has become. I mean, think of my dream place, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, what it is today. And that whole area has been transformed.

CARMON: My neighborhood. Okay, technically, please, just one word. Citizens United.


CARMON: Chief Justice Roberts.

GINSBURG: Most able to.

CARMON: Hobby Lobby.

GINSBURG: Wrong again. [Laughs]

CARMON: Okay, I'll take it. Speaking of Hobby Lobby. There are some who think that under this court, gay rights have proceeded -- have abounded while women's rights have been rolled back. How do you see it?

GINSBURG: I don't want to talk about what you describe as gay rights. Because as you know, we have a very important case that's going to be heard in April. And I don't want to suggest how the court will decide that case, one way or another.

CARMON: But you've been dismayed by the courts rulings on women's rights?

GINSBURG: Not all of them. Think of the case of the girl who was strip searched. She was in the eighth grade.

CARMON: Savana Redding.

GINSBURG: And if you saw the difference between the oral argument and what some of my colleagues thought, "Oh, the boys in the gym, they undress and nobody thinks anything of it."

CARMON: That was a case in which you changed their minds.


CARMON: Is what it looks like.

GINSBURG: Yes. As we live, we can learn. It's important to listen. So I'm very glad that case came out as it did. Sometimes I am not [unintelligible] persuasive with my colleagues. Take the Lilly Ledbetter case. It was a five to four decision. But Congress understood. So they changed the law.

CARMON: So I'm looking at something that you wrote in 2003. You said, "The stain of generations of racial oppression is still visible in our society." I'm wondering how you see the current state of race relations in our country?

GINSBURG: People who think you could wave a magic wand and the legacy of the past will be over are blind. Think of neighborhood living patterns. We still have many neighborhoods that are racially identified. We still have many schools that even though the days of state enforced segregation are gone, segregation because of geographical boundaries remains.

There have been experiments, tests that I have referred to, where the tester goes to a used car buyer and wants to buy a car. So the testers can be white male, African American male, white women, African American women. And the one who gets the highest price is always the African American woman. So there's that kind of bias. That is still prevalent. You can see it with people trying to get loans to buy homes. That same pattern. So again, we've come a long way from the days where there was state enforced segregation. But we still have a way to go.

CARMON: The court's taken a look at some major civil rights laws in the past. You've dissented on the Voting Rights case. There's been several Title 7 cases, that seem to be chipping away a lot of the legislation that was passed during the civil rights era. Should we be worried that all of those great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement are being rolled back?

GINSBURG: The Congress in 1991 took a look at some of this court's restrictive interpretations of Title 7. And they passed a bill that changed all of those. At the moment, our Congress is not functioning very well. [Laughs] I mean, for example, the Voting Rights Act was renewed by overwhelming majorities on both sides of the aisle. But the current Congress is not equipped really to do anything.

So the kind of result that we got in the Ledbetter case is not easily achieved today. Someday, we will go back to having the kind of legislature that we should, where members, whatever party they belong to, want to make the thing work and cooperate with each other to see that that will happen. I mean, it was that way in 1992 when I was nominated for this good job. There were only three negative votes. And my hope and expectation is that we will get back to that kind of bipartisan spirit.

CARMON: I have here this --

GINSBURG: Chef Supreme, yeah.

CARMON: -- this beautiful cookbook put out by the Supreme Court -- of the recipes of your late husband, Martin Ginsburg. The reason that I brought it is because I'm so struck by what looks like a very egalitarian marriage. And I just wonder, Justice Ginsburg, you know, did you have an egalitarian marriage? Was it a conscious effort? How did it happen? I think a lot of young women want to know.

GINSBURG: Perhaps because we married at what today would be considered rather on the young side, I was 21, Marty was 22. And Marty was an extraordinary person. Of all the boys I had dated, he was the only one who really cared that I had a brain. And he was always -- well, making me feel that I was better than I thought I was. So we went to law school. And he told everybody, all of his friends, and he was one year ahead of me. His wife was gonna be on the Law Review.

And people looked at me and said, "She doesn't look like the type that's gonna be on the Law Review," whatever that type was. But in the course of a marriage, one accommodates the other. So, for example, when Marty was intent on becoming a partner in a New York law firm in five years, during that time, I was the major caretaker of our home and then child. But when I started up the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Marty realized how important that work was. The kitchen is another story. [Laughs] I used to be --

CARMON: This is -- these recipes, right?

GINSBURG: Well, I was the everyday cook. And Marty was the company and weekend cook. And my daughter, who was a fine cook -- when she was in high school, maybe about 15-16, she noticed the enormous difference between Daddy's cooking and Mommy's cooking. And decided that Mommy should be phased out of the kitchen altogether. She shouldn't be cooking every day.

And so, we'd been living in D.C. since 1980. I have not cooked a single meal. My daughter feels responsibility for seeing that her mother is well-fed. 'Cause she comes once a month. She spends all day cooking. She fills my freezer with food. Then we do something nice together in the evening. And then she comes back a month later.

CARMON: It seems like female friendship has played a big role in your life, too. Your friendship with Justice O'Connor. Your friendship with Justice Kagan. What kind of support are you getting now from friends?

GINSBURG: And my friendship with Herma Hill Kay with whom I wrote a book. We called it Sex-Based Discrimination. It was published in 1974.

CARMON: Have a copy.

GINSBURG: And Herma, by the way, is soon to publish a book about the 14 women who were on tenure tracks in law schools across the country before Herma was appointed. So she was appointed in 1961-- as of that time, there were only 14 women on tenure track posts in law school, from East Coast to West Coast or in between. That, I think, will be a very wonderful book.

CARMON: And the role of friends in your life?

GINSBURG: Well, my best friend was my dear spouse. Marty was always my best friend.

CARMON: One of the things that I was wondering is, you know, in 2009, you said that sometimes you're in the room with your fellow justices and you say something and no one listens. And then you say it again. Do you still experience sexism?

GINSBURG: Yes. Less than I once did. Once it happened all the time that I would say something and there was no response. And then a man would say the same thing and people would say, "Good idea." [Laughs] That happens much less today.

CARMON: Gloria Steinem said that women are the one group that gets more radical with age. Is that true for you?

GINSBURG: I had great good fortune in my life to be alive and have the skills of a lawyer when the women's movement was revived in the United States. And I think my attitude, my aspirations have not changed since the '70s. My hope for our society that we're gonna use the talent of all of the people and not just half of them. I would contrast an earlier period in my life, when I just accepted discrimination as that's the way things are. Nothing I can do about it. So --

CARMON: And now? Now how do you react to the discrimination?

GINSBURG: I -- try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they're men or women.

CARMON: So I know that you have no intention of retiring, and correct me if I'm wrong, anytime soon. But I'm wondering what you want your successor to look like?

GINSBURG: My successor will be the choice of whatever president is sitting at that time. But I'm concerned about doing the job full steam. And I've said many times, once I sense that I am slipping, I will step down. Because this is a very intense job. It is by far the best and the hardest job I've ever had. And it takes a lot of energy and staying power to do it right. So that is when I will step down, when I feel I can no longer do the job full steam.

CARMON: And when the time comes, what would you like to be remembered for?

GINSBURG: Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. 'Cause I've gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I've done for which I was not paid.

CARMON: I've gotta ask you, by the way, everybody's talking about the State of the Union. They're saying you said yesterday that you were not 100% sober.

GINSBURG: Oh -- [Laughs] what I meant was that I head a glass of wine with dinner. And that on top of having stayed up all night. I was writing something. And --

CARMON: So you're a bit of a lightweight, as we call it?

GINSBURG: I thought to myself, "Don't stay up all night." But then my pen was hot. And so I couldn't stop what I was doing [unintelligible] just drink sparkling water, no wine. But the dinner was so good. And it needed to be complemented.

CARMON: This is dinner with your fellow justices?

GINSBURG: Yes. That’s a tradition that we have dinner together before the State of the Union, which usually Justice Kennedy who brings in a good California wine. David Souter, when he was on the court, he sat next to me. We do everything in seniority order. So -- and he was sensitive to my -- well, he couldn't -- he could sense when my head was beginning to lower. So he would give me a pinch. [Laughs] Now -- my colleagues -- I think they're more reluctant.

CARMON: Who was sitting next to you?

GINSBURG: I have Justice Breyer on one side, Justice Kennedy on the other. And they gave me a little jab, but it wasn't enough. [Laughs] So one of the difficulties at the State of the Union, everybody's bobbing up and down all around us. And we have to sit there stone sober. And not stand up and clap. So it's an ordeal for me. And I did get immediately after the State of the Union a call from my granddaughter, who said, "Grammy, you looked sleepy during the State of the Union."