Ginsburg Embraces Gay-Marriage Rulings as Court Shuns Bold Moves

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s incremental approach on gay marriage, blamed her colleagues for inviting a deluge of political spending -- and suggested she’s ready to spar over those issues for years to come.

In a rare interview in her chambers, the 80-year-old justice reflected on a term in which she helped shape narrow victories for gay marriage while underscoring her status as the leader of the court’s liberal wing and its foremost champion of legal protections for women and racial minorities.

Ginsburg, who has said the court was too bold in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling, said the justices wisely took a more limited approach in the two gay marriage decisions. Supporters had urged the court to declare a constitutional right for same-sex marriage nationwide.

“The court handled both of those cases just the way they should have,” she said.

Ginsburg smiled and occasionally joked as she relaxed in her stuffed armchair amid the abstract-art collection that adorns her Washington office. She made clear she continues to relish a job she has held since 1993, when President Bill Clinton made her the second woman ever to serve on the high court.

Now the court’s oldest member, she said she won’t rush into retirement simply to ensure that President Barack Obama can appoint her successor before his term ends in January 2017.

“I’m hopeful about the next president,” Ginsburg said, declining to say whether she had a candidate in mind.

Admires Obama

Ginsburg has long admired Obama, whose photo, embracing her at a State of the Union address, occupies a prominent spot in her office. She said in the interview that the president took a “brave” step by pushing for his health-care law, which was enacted in 2010 and upheld by the court last year.

She was quick to criticize much of the work of her more conservative colleagues under Chief Justice John Roberts. Ginsburg said the court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate campaign spending, had led to a torrent of money in the 2012 federal elections.

“You take the limits off and say, ‘You can spend as much as you want,’ and people will spend and spend,” she said. “People are appalled abroad. It’s a question I get asked all the time: Why should elections be determined by how much a candidate can spend and why should candidates spend most of their time these days raising the funds so that they will prevail in the next election?”

Campaign Spending

Super-political action committees, political committees, tax-exempt organizations and other non-party entities reported $1.04 billion in spending on independent expenditures and electioneering communications advocating federal candidates in the 2012 election cycle. That’s three times the $338 million reported by groups in the 2008 elections and five times the amount reported in 2004.

Ginsburg said the court shifted, leaving her more frequently in dissent in major cases, when Justice Samuel Alito succeeded Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006. During the most recent term, Ginsburg read dissents from the bench in an unusually large number of cases -- five -- including fights over affirmative action, minority voting rights and employment discrimination.

She was the lone dissenter in the affirmative action case, a compromise decision that told a lower court to give tougher scrutiny to a University of Texas policy of considering race in admissions. The court left intact a 2003 decision that said schools seeking to ensure campus diversity could consider race as part of a broad review of an applicant’s file.

Affirmative Action

During the interview, Ginsburg questioned whether the ruling would have a major impact, saying affirmative action remains legal under the court’s precedents. Universities can still put in place the type of plan endorsed by Justice Lewis Powell in 1978, when he wrote the pivotal opinion in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke decision.

She also said opponents may have trouble recruiting plaintiffs. “There may not be many challenges ahead to the university plans,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg was in the majority in the two gay-marriage rulings, both 5-4 decisions. The high court ruled on procedural grounds in a California case, letting gay weddings resume there without affecting other states. In the second case, the court struck down a federal law that denied benefits to legally married same-sex couples.

Working Late

Long known for working late into the night, Ginsburg said she produced her majority opinions more quickly than any other justice in the nine-month term that ended in June. She pointed to that accomplishment as a sign that she hasn’t begun to slow down.

“As long as I can do this job full steam, I’d like to do it,” Ginsburg said. “But at my age you have to go year by year. So last year I thought I was fine.”

She responded with a quip when a reporter said he needed to ask her “the mandatory retirement question.”

“Do I think there should be mandatory retirement?” she said with a chuckle. “I certainly do not.”

Ginsburg has survived both colon and pancreatic cancer. The diminutive justice has broken ribs twice since June 2012.

As a reporter and photographer left her office, she volunteered that she was already looking ahead to the term that starts in October. Among the highlights are another affirmative action case and a campaign-finance clash.

“It may be as big of a term as last year,” Ginsburg said.