Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg To NPR: "I Am Very Much Alive" Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told NPR's Nina Totenberg in an interview that despite battling cancer for a third time earlier this year, she is not going anywhere by choice any time soon. She went on to critique some Democratic presidential hopefuls who propose expanding the court. This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, Supreme Court correspondent Nina Totenburg, and political editor Domenico Montanaro. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg To NPR: "I Am Very Much Alive"

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg To NPR: "I Am Very Much Alive"

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg To NPR: "I Am Very Much Alive"

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(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

KEITH: And we have Nina Totenberg here with us. Hey, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Hey there, Tam.

MONTANARO: Hi.

KEITH: And it is currently 5:55 p.m. on Tuesday, the 23 of July. We are here in the studio because Domenico and Nina just got back from the Supreme Court building, where you interviewed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So what was it like?

TOTENBERG: I mean, she's such a fascinating person. She is a slow talker, so for radio, that's sometimes a little hard. But she had some important things to say today.

MONTANARO: And she's so sharp. I mean, the thing that really comes across is - Nina says she's slow. She's a little plodding. But she knows exactly where she wants to go. And, man, she she had some things to say today.

KEITH: And before we get to what she actually said, what were you doing there?

TOTENBERG: Well, I'm the keynote speaker for the American College of Surgeons in the fall. And her surgeon from her latest cancer - her last cancer at the end of last year...

KEITH: Which was a lung cancer.

TOTENBERG: Which is lung cancer - her surgeon is being sworn in as the new president of the American College of Surgeons. So I thought, the speech that I'm going to give is not, per se, about her. It's about justices and their health. But it would be a good thing if I had some video of her talking about fighting cancer multiple times. And that's what I went in there to do. And then we also did some talking about the court, as well.

MONTANARO: That's one way to get an interview with a Supreme Court justice.

KEITH: I know.

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: OK. But so you were there to ask her about her health, and she had some things to say about her health.

TOTENBERG: When you get a cold or a hangnail, there's a substantial portion of the population - a large part of it female but men, too - who go into a complete panic.

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Some are not panicked. Some - there was a senator - I think it was after the pancreatic cancer - who announced with great glee that I was going to be dead within six months. That senator, whose name I've forgotten, is now himself dead.

(LAUGHTER)

GINSBURG: And I am very much alive.

MONTANARO: So and that was the moment where we all looked at each other in the room who were sort of support staff to this thing. And we sort of had to kind of stay quiet, but we all kind of, like, gasped out loud silently, you know?

KEITH: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Like, we all looked at - even, like, court staffers who were in there sort of looked at us like, OK, that's your news, right?

(LAUGHTER)

KEITH: Well, and so the reason people are - beyond surgeons, are very interested in Ruth Bader Ginsburg's health is this iconic justice for the left. She's on T-shirts. She's on coasters.

TOTENBERG: There are two hit movies about her. One's a documentary. The other's a movie about her becoming a lawyer.

KEITH: And the balance of the court is now in a place where, if President Trump were to get another justice, if there was something wrong with her health, that would change the balance of the court.

TOTENBERG: Well, it's already 5-4 with the conservatives definitely having the balance of power. And were she not to be there and Trump to replace her, it would be a 6-3 court.

KEITH: So Justice Ginsburg got herself into a little bit of trouble in 2016 for saying some critical things about President Trump. In this interview, did she have critical things to say about anyone?

TOTENBERG: She had critical things to say, this time about the - some of the Democratic contenders for the presidency for proposing, essentially, a court-packing plan like FDR's court-packing plan. And she didn't much care for that idea. She thought it was not a good idea.

MONTANARO: Right, because there've been several presidential candidates on the Democratic side who've at least been open to the idea of putting more justices on the Supreme Court to sort of dilute the power of the number of justices that are there now. Now, there are nine justices on the court. FDR had proposed expanding the number on the court way back when he was president. And the difference now - you have presidential candidates who are actually proposing this. And you have Justice Ginsburg, who, again, like you said, took shots at President Trump or candidate Trump - this time said Democratic candidates have been proposing this, and she thinks it's a bad idea. She went there and called them out specifically.

GINSBURG: There is no fixed number in the Constitution. So this court has had as few as five, as many as 10. Nine seems to be a good number. And it's been that way for a very long time. I have heard that there are some people on the Democratic side who would like to increase the number of judges. I think that was a bad idea when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to pack the court. If that plan had been effective, the court's number would have swelled immediately from nine to 15. And the president would have six appointments to make.

You mentioned before the court appearing partisan. Well, if anything would make the court appear partisan, it would be that - one side saying, when we're in power, we're going to enlarge the number of judges, so we would have more people who will vote the way we want them to. So I am not at all in favor of that solution to what I see as a temporary situation when the president is term-limited. So the president can't make that many appointments. And then there'll be a new administration. That administration will have appointments to make.

TOTENBERG: Part of her concern about all these ideas for changing the way the court operates is that it will impair judicial independence and respect that people have for following the law as laid down by the Supreme Court. Whether or not you like it - and she noted that, sometimes, she doesn't like it, but you just move on.

GINSBURG: One question that I'm often asked when I go abroad is, well, suppose the court declares something - legislation - unconstitutional or an executive order of the president. What power do you have to enforce what you say? Because in a lot of tribunals, the court may say something, but the executive disagrees and doesn't implement it. The court has no troops at its command. It doesn't have the power of the purse. And yet time and again, when the court says something, people accept it. One example in the not so dim past was Bush v. Gore. I dissented from that decision. I thought it was unwise. A lot of people disagreed with it. And yet the day after the court rendered its decision, there were no riots in the streets. People adjusted to it, and life went on.

KEITH: So here's the thing. The courts are political or have become pretty political. The court fights are politicized in a very significant way. There are arguments that in Bush v. Gore, that was a political decision. Is she trying to say that the Supreme Court isn't political?

TOTENBERG: She's trying to say that it might be ideological but not political, not partisan. And she said, look. I dissented in Bush v. Gore. I didn't like that decision. I didn't agree. But the country accepted it and moved on. And we still continued to have a government - interestingly, a government that functioned then during - right after 9/11. It was really important that the country moved on. And that is sort of the core - her, I think, core belief. And I think it's the core belief of most, if not all, the justices that you have to have a system where the court's cred, so to speak, is good enough that people will accept what they say, even when they disagree with it, and move on.

MONTANARO: So Justice Ginsburg said it was pretty remarkable the fact that the court has no troops. It has no power of the purse, right? How do you enforce these kinds of things? You know, as Nina mentioned, after Bush v. Gore, which was the case in 2000 that ultimately put George W. Bush in the presidency while Florida was still up for grabs, essentially - 530-some votes that wound up deciding that presidency. You know, she wound up saying, look. You have to use this power wisely because if you don't, people aren't going to listen to the Supreme Court anymore. And right now they do take it as the final word.

KEITH: She is known for her work related to women's rights well before she became a justice. In the last few months, there have been a bunch of laws that, you know, dance close to whether Roe v. Wade - this landmark decision related to abortion - whether it will continue as it is.

TOTENBERG: Domenico actually, at the end of the interview, came in and said, I have a question for you.

MONTANARO: Well, I think Nina asked if her editor had a question. I didn't just jump in (laughter).

KEITH: And we should say that Domenico is the editor who edits our Supreme Court coverage.

TOTENBERG: So when - at the end of our interview, I was wondering if there was something I'd left out, so I turned to my trusty editor Domenico Montanaro and I said, do you have a question? So what was your question?

MONTANARO: I asked her, essentially, with all the work that she's done on women's rights in particular - she mentioned during the interview a 10-year stretch that she was particularly proud of. You know, I asked her, with the new conservative majority and the potential for a 5-4 conservative majority for quite some time - a generation or more - whether she was worried about the direction that the court was heading.

GINSBURG: I don't think there's going to be any going back to old ways. But when you think about it, the world has changed, really, in what women are doing. I went to law school when women were less than 3% of the lawyers in the country. Today, they're 50%. I never had a woman teacher in college or in law school. I mean, the changes have been enormous. And they just - they've gone much too far - whether going back.

KEITH: OK. We are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, Nina asked Justice Ginsburg about how she's gotten through three bouts of cancer in 20 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEITH: And we're back. And, Nina Totenberg, you interviewed Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg about her health. That was the premise for the interview, but you also asked her about sort of how she got through these bouts of cancer that she's had. And her late husband, Marty, was a big part of that, right?

TOTENBERG: Yes. And so the latest bout is the first one that she got through without him. And I asked her how she did that and how it was different.

GINSBURG: My first two cancer bouts, Marty stayed with me. He stayed with me in the hospital, sleeping on an uncomfortable couch despite his bad back. And I knew that someone was there who really cared about me and would make sure that things didn't go wrong. There was one day during the colon cancer bout when I was getting a blood transfusion. And Marty saw that something was very wrong, and he immediately yanked the needle out of me. It turned out that there was a mismatch not of the type of blood but in some antigen. I might not have lived if he hadn't been there.

TOTENBERG: You said he read to you. What did he read to you?

GINSBURG: Oh (laughter), yes. Well, for one thing, he was my clipping service with The New York Times and the Post. I miss him every morning because I have no one to go through the paper and pick out what I should read.

MONTANARO: So the fact of the matter was she didn't have him, this guy who was her rock, through cancer. And what she said was the work sustained her. So anybody who thinks she's going anywhere anytime soon by her own choice is sadly mistaken.

KEITH: And (laughter) if there was any message from this interview, from beginning to end, apparently, it was that. All right. Well, that is a wrap for now. Today is the big Mueller day. Special counsel Robert Mueller will be testifying about his investigation into Russian election interference in 2016 and possible obstruction of justice by President Trump. There are two hearings. We'll be back later in the day with a full wrap-up of those two hearings. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, political editor.

TOTENBERG: And I'm Nina Totenberg. I cover the Supreme Court.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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