The Volokh Conspiracy

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg > "Notorious RBG"

Professor Rick Hasen on why its a bad idea to treat Supreme Court justices like celebrities (and why justices should not embrace their celebrity either).


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become known as the "Notorious RBG"—and not always for the best reasons. She has attracted a following and is treated as much as a cultural or political icon as an esteemed jurist. She also has a penchant for commenting on current political controversies, including matters that could come before the court.

Professor Rick Hasen thinks this is a bad thing. While he blames the late Justice Antonin Scalia for starting the trend, he is particularly concerned about how viewing justices as celebrities—and seeing Justice Ginsburg not as a jurist but the "Notorious RBG"—affects our understanding of the law and the role of courts. As he explains in the LA Times:

Ginsburg has taken up the mantle of the court's most provocative public justice. . . .

As her public persona has grown, Ginsburg has embraced the "Notorious R.B.G." label. She's encouraged a cult of worship to grow up around her. There's hagiography like the "Notorious RBG" book and the "The RBG Workout," an illustrated book by her personal trainer. There's a Ginsburg tumblr and Ginsburg T-shirts.

Just this week, despite swearing off political statements, she said sexism played a prominent role in Hillary Clinton's election defeat. That may be true, but a sitting Supreme Court justice should not be weighing in on such questions.

It's dangerous for Supreme Court justices to assume such political roles, particularly when faith in our institutions is declining. If justices are going to be public figures, they should do so in ways that reinforce the rule of law, not partisan politics.

As Professor Hasen explains, the more we view justices as belonging to one "team" or another, the more we undermine the ideals of the neutral administration of justice and the rule of law. As he concludes:

Justice Ginsburg is a hero. She deserves our thanks for her exemplary service. But the left needn't turn her into a god and conservative justices into devils.