At 83, US Supreme Court judge Ginsburg is pop culture icon


Washington (AFP)

Known for her lacy white collars and fastidious vocabulary, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems like a figure from a bygone era in the austere chambers of the US Supreme Court.

Yet the "Notorious RBG" is a liberal trailblazer, championing progressive views that have made the 83-year-old a beloved pop culture icon.

The doyenne of the venerable court has a new book out, "My Own Words," a compilation of her writings and speeches that shine with finely crafted arguments.

Its publication follows recent controversies surrounding the justice, who serves a lifetime appointment to the bench.

In July, she broke protocol by calling Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a "faker."

"He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment," she said.

Ginsburg later expressed regret for the remarks.

More recently, she had to take back a comment that it was "dumb and disrespectful" for NFL player Colin Kaepernick to kneel during the nation anthem, in protest against racial inequality and police brutality.

The justice later said her words were "inappropriately dismissive and harsh."

The diminutive Ginsburg, just over five feet (1.54 meters) tall, stands out among Supreme Court justices with her celebrity. She's pursued by the media, even tabloids, and can hardly take a step without fans stopping her for a selfie.

"It makes me smile: at age 83 everyone wants to take my picture," she told Yahoo News recently.

Her severe countenance is splashed on coffee mugs, beach bags and T-shirts. She's even the subject of a children's book.

Her nickname is a play on the moniker of The Notorious BIG, an influential rapper who was killed in a drive-by shooting at age 24.

In perhaps the ultimate tribute, a female law student had an image of the justice, depicted in her black robes, tattooed on her shoulder over the word "Supreme."

"She's like a phenomenon, she's like pop culture, she's huge," tattoo artist Nikki Lugo told AFP.

- 'Three strikes' -

Ginsburg is regularly ranked among the world's most influential women.

With its technical debates, the Supreme Court is not usually the object of public fascination. Even in Washington, where the court is located, most people know very little about the justices.

These days the panel has eight justices instead of the usual nine, following the February death of Antonin Scalia, a hero of conservatives.

Scalia and Ginsburg were good friends, even though they were polar opposites politically. They shared a love of opera and a photograph shows them riding an elephant together on a trip to India.

Ginsburg, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by then-president Bill Clinton, is one of three women and four liberal justices.

She has long used her position to take aim at sexism.

Married at 21, she studied law at a time when the profession almost exclusively male.

She attended Harvard Law School and later transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class. Still, New York law firms snubbed her.

"I had three strikes against me. One, I was Jewish. Two, I was a woman. But the killer was I was a mother of a four-year-old child," she said in an interview with CBS.

Between 1972 and 1978, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five times.

- Pioneer -

Almost 40 years later, when people ask her when she'll be satisfied with the number of women on the Supreme Court, she says: "When there are nine."

Ginsburg is admired not only for her pioneering advocacy on behalf of women; She has also espoused liberal views on issues like abortion, the death penalty and same-sex marriage.

Even her antiquated appearance is open to change.

One moment she's wearing gloves and frilly chiffon, but she can also been seen at the Supreme Court gym in a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "Super Diva."

The secret of her longevity is Bryant Johnson, her personal trainer who puts her through her paces twice a week.

"We do 10 push-ups, then I breathe, then I do 10 more... and then the plank, which I think is harder -- and that's for 30 seconds," she told Yahoo News.

"Then I kind sink down and then we do another 30 seconds."

How ironic that the plank is seen as a challenge by a woman who climbed to the top of the US justice system, beat cancer twice, raised two children and buried her beloved husband Marty in 2010.

No matter whether Republican Trump or Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the White House, the Notorious RBG will remain perched on the bench, handing down key decisions that affect American society.