Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recently officiated at a friend's same-sex wedding, told a Philadelphia audience Friday that growing acceptance of gay marriage reflects the "genius" of the U.S. Constitution.
Ginsburg said equality has always been central to the Constitution, even if society has only applied it to minorities — be they women, blacks or gays — over time.
"So I see the genius of our Constitution, and of our society, is how much more embracive we have become than we were at the beginning," Ginsburg said in a far-ranging discussion of her work at the National Constitution Center, steps from the nation's founding at Independence Hall.
Ginsburg, the second woman named to the high court, has now served for 20 years and leads the court's liberal minority.
Her increasingly candid and forceful writing — often as the voice of the dissent in 5-4 cases — has attracted ardent fans, including New York University law school student Shana Knizhnik, who wore a "Notorious R.B.G." t-shirt — a twist on the similarly named Brooklyn rapper.
Knizhnik, 25, of Philadelphia, who designed the shirt and has sold about 2,000 of them, so admired the justice's writings and accomplishments that she started a blog this year devoted to "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in all her glory."
"Her story's so amazing and inspiring," said Knizhnik, who plans a career as a public defender. "The work she continues to do and fight for, despite the rightward direction the court seems to be going in. Especially seeing a woman up there is so great. I would love to have even a fraction of the career she's had."
In recent years, the Supreme Court has repeatedly decided pivotal issues by a single vote, from the Bush v. Gore election to the health care reform act to the June decision to strike down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Ginsburg has often been on the losing side of the epic battles, but said some would have turned out differently had the first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, not retired in 2006.
"The year she left us, in every case where I was among the four, if she had remained, I would have been among the five. So her leaving the court made an enormous difference," Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg criticized her majority colleagues for what she called "activist" decisions that overturned laws better understood by Congress, such as the Voting Rights Act, which had been extended by a series of bipartisan presidents, most recently George W. Bush.
"That's an example of striking down legislation on a subject that the people in the political arena are better informed about than the court is," she said.
Ginsburg, 80, gave no hint she would wind down her judicial career anytime soon, noting that the fall docket includes such important issues as campaign finance limits and affirmative action. And, despite her sharp ideological differences with some colleagues, including close friend Antonin Scalia, she said their work environment remains cordial.
"One of the hallmarks of the court is collegiality," Ginsburg said. "You could not do the job that the Constitution gives to us if you didn't, to use one of Justice Scalia's favorite expressions, `Get over it.'"