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Remembering Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature - the words of Chief Justice John Roberts on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has died at the age of 87. She was surrounded at home by her family. And in the hours after her death, mourners made their way to the Capitol and to the Supreme Court to pay respects. Chanda Jefferson (ph), a teacher, was among them.

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CHANDA JEFFERSON: It's just a sad moment, you know, but it's beautiful to see all of these people have come together to honor her legacy and her life. She was a hero for young girls, for our students. And it's just an example for them to see, you know, all the things that she did.

SIMON: Nairika Murphy (ph) was already thinking ahead to what may happen after the vigils and remembrances.

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NAIRIKA MURPHY: It's wonderful to come out and show support, but it doesn't really mean anything if we don't carry the legacy forward by acting and voting and continuing to uphold the values that RBG and folks like her thought so hard for, you know?

SIMON: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg covered and knew and was known well by Ruth Bader Ginsburg for so long. Nina, a rough morning - thank you for making time for us.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Of course.

SIMON: We heard earlier about Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legal career. (Laughter) Then she became a cultural icon, a celebrity in her 80s. Wow - how did that happen?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, I don't know exactly how it happened. I've pondered this, why young women, even young girls, identified with her so much. But there was something so dignified about her, so elegant, so discreet but so human and fierce. There was something just so stand-up about her. She stood up for herself, and she stood up for so many other people.

You know, when the #MeToo movement was just taking hold, I interviewed her at the Sundance Film Festival, and I asked her whether any sexual harassment had ever happened to her. And she said well, of course. Anybody of my age has had that happen. She said, I remember when I was a student at Cornell - now, Scott, remember; she was about 17 when she entered Cornell on full scholarship - and she was worried about her scholarship and that she wouldn't do well enough in her biology class. So she went to the professor and asked him for some help. And he gave her a practice exam. And then when she went in for her regular exam, it was the same exam. And she said, I had to mark a couple of them wrong so that I wouldn't make too much of this. And then she went to his office. And I said, well, what did you do? I would have just run away. She said, I said to him, how dare you. How dare you.

SIMON: (Laughter).

TOTENBERG: She did that for other people all the time - women, minorities, people, dissenters. She said to the people who tried to give away their rights, how dare you.

SIMON: Gosh. You know, and you were in a position to see the longtime partnership she had with Marty Ginsburg, her husband. I had forgotten the fact that she was not the first choice of President Clinton reportedly for the court and that Marty Ginsburg was her campaign manager, in a sense.

TOTENBERG: That's exactly right. He made up a book of essentially recommendations about her. And when she went to see Clinton, you know, she was a very shy and quiet person. But when she performed, she performed. She knew this interview was a performance. And Clinton's aides said afterwards that he fell for her hook, line and sinker. And the minute she got on the court, she was a force to be reckoned with.

SIMON: Yeah. And help us understand her role on the court, and for that matter, how it may have changed in recent years.

TOTENBERG: Well, in the beginning, she joined Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the court. But once O'Connor left, she began to dissent more and more as her view did not prevail more and more. In one case involving a sex discrimination and the amount of backpay where the court, by a 5-4 vote, narrowed the amount of backpay that a victim of discrimination could get to a very small amount, she chose, as she did in very strategic moments, to announce her dissent from the bench. And she called on Congress in that dissent to do something about this, to change the law. And it was the first law that was passed when President Obama was elected to expand the amount of backpay for victims of discrimination in employment.

SIMON: And you were in an position...

TOTENBERG: In...

SIMON: Oh, go ahead.

TOTENBERG: So another example - in 2014, she dissented fiercely from the court's decision that allowed some for-profit companies to refuse on religious grounds to comply with a federal mandate to cover birth control in health care plans. Such an exemption, she said, would deny legions of women who do not hold their employers' beliefs access to contraceptive coverage. Where, she asked, is the stopping point? Suppose it offends an employer's religious belief to pay the minimum wage or to accord women equal pay.

And in 2013, when the court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that - and the court said that the law was no longer needed, Ginsburg said that throwing out that provision when it had worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet. She viewed her dissents as a chance to persuade a future court, she told me in one interview.

SIMON: Wow. NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.