Review: In ‘RBG,’ the Life and Times of a Beloved and Controversial Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court, but she’s probably the first justice to become a full-fledged pop-cultural phenomenon. “RBG,” a loving and informative documentary portrait of Justice Ginsburg during her 85th year on earth and her 25th on the bench, is both evidence of this status and a partial explanation of how it came about.

Directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, the film is a jaunty assemblage of interviews, public appearances and archival material, organized to illuminate its subject’s temperament and her accomplishments so far. Though it begins with audio snippets of Justice Ginsburg’s right-wing detractors — who see her as a “demon,” a “devil” and a threat to America — “RBG” takes a pointedly high road through recent political controversies. Its celebration of Justice Ginsburg’s record of progressive activism and jurisprudence is partisan but not especially polemical. The filmmakers share her convictions and assume that the audience will, too.

Which might be true, and not only because much of the audience is likely to consist of liberals. Before she was named to the federal bench by Jimmy Carter in 1980, the future justice had argued a handful of important sex-discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. What linked these cases — she won five out of six — was the theory that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should apply to women and could be used to remedy discrepancies in hiring, business practices and public policy.


Trailer: ‘RBG’

A preview of the film.

By MAGNOLIA PICTURES on Publish Date April 24, 2018. .

The idea that women are equal citizens — that barring them from certain jobs and educational opportunities and treating them as the social inferiors of men are unfair — may not seem especially controversial now. “RBG” uses Justice Ginsburg’s own experiences to emphasize how different things were not so long ago. At Harvard Law School, she was one of nine women in a class of hundreds, and was asked by the dean (as all the women were) why she thought she deserved to take what should have been a man’s place.

The biographical part of “RBG” tells a story that is both typical and exceptional. It’s a reminder that the upward striving of first- and second-generation Jewish immigrants in the middle decades of the 20th century was accompanied by fervent political idealism. Justice Ginsburg’s career was marked by intense intellectual ambition and also by a determination to use the law as an instrument of change.

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White Collar Watch: Why Elizabeth Warren’s Effort to Hold Bank Executives Accountable May Fall Short

Legislation introduced last month to better hold financial executives accountable for misconduct probably won’t result in a wave of prosecutions.

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Despite Trump Threat, N.E.A and N.E.H Are Spared in Spending Bill


Funding from the National Endowment for the Arts helped the Dallas Museum of Art buy “All the Submarines of the United States of America” (1987), by Chris Burden, shown in 2013 at the New Museum in New York. Credit Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

Arts organizations around the country can breathe a sigh of relief.

Once again, Congress has rebuffed President Trump’s call to gut the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the new $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump on Friday, both endowments actually saw a slight increase of about $3 million in their funding levels, to about $153 million each.

In Mr. Trump’s first federal budget last year, he caused alarm after he became the first president to call for ending the endowments since they were created in 1965 — even though the combined budgets of both make up a mere fraction of the federal budget. Arts groups around the country mobilized immediately to save the federal funding.


Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, whose support was crucial to N.E.A. and N.E.H. funding. Credit Alex Wong/Getty Images

It turned out that the N.E.A. and N.E.H. also had support from key Republicans, including Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who is the chairwoman of a crucial Senate appropriations subcommittee. (Congress writes the federal budget.) Mr. Trump called for slashing the endowments again in his second budget — and the reaction was muted from arts groups after last year’s threat didn’t come to pass.

“With this funding, N.E.H. will be able to aggressively support essential cultural infrastructure projects across the country,” Jon Parrish Peede, the senior deputy chairman of the N.E.H., said in a statement. Mr. Peede was nominated by Mr. Trump to be the endowment’s chairman.

A spokeswoman for the N.E.A. said, “The National Endowment for the Arts is deeply appreciative of the support of members of Congress for the agency’s mission of providing all Americans the opportunity to participate in the arts, exercise their imaginations, and develop their creative capacities.”

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Once It Was Overdue Books. Now Librarians Fight Overdoses.

New York City’s three library systems have not said that they will follow other cities in carrying naloxone, but parts of New York appear to be inching in that direction.

In Long Island’s Suffolk County, which has among the highest rates of overdose deaths in the state, some 200 library employees (out of thousands) have been trained to use naloxone, said the director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, Kevin Verbesey. “I have a pack of it right here in my L.L. Bean briefcase. My little blue O.D. rescue kit.”

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill into law that added libraries to a list of institutions such as schools that are authorized to possess and use naloxone. The proposed legislation in Congress would make it easier for libraries to stock the drug, especially as prices rise, said Mr. Verbesey.

Still, at libraries big and small, directors are weighing the potential consequences.

Bambi Pedu, the director of the library in Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks, worried that drug addicts would start to use in the small-town library if they knew it stocked naloxone. “You’re opening a can of worms,” she said.

In Albany’s libraries, drug use is already happening, which comes with its own issues, said Scott Jarzombek, the executive director of the state capital’s seven-library system. “We see people come in, they go straight to the bathroom stalls.” The library system changed its bathroom policy to require people to show identification, after a patron died in one branch.

But he had opposed asking staff to train to use naloxone, until he recently watched a woman revive a companion in a bathroom. “Seeing it happen in front of me made me think, maybe we should start training our staff and having the conversation about Narcan,” he said. “As great as our first responders are, they might not be able to get here in time.”


David Kirschner, a drummer in his early 60s, is a recovering heroin addict who has spent winter days in the Middletown library. “I think they go beyond their duties as a library to help people who are on drugs,” he said.

Credit Ryan Christopher Jones for The New York Times

Mr. Pfisterer, in Middletown, keeps naloxone in his office, which is outfitted with monitors showing surveillance footage of the premises.

If patrons know that librarians are on alert for overdoses, he said, “My biggest fear is that people will stop coming to the library.” And yet, he said, it is only another indication of how widespread the problem has become. “It’s everywhere.”

David Kirschner, a drummer in his early 60s, has spent winter days in the library in Middletown and nights in a warming station across the street, while he weans himself off heroin with the drug Suboxone.

“I think they go beyond their duties as a library to help people who are on drugs,” he said. “There’s always A.A. and N.A. and they can tell you where that’s at. The security periodically knocks on the door in the bathroom to make sure everyone is O.K.”

In Newburgh, Mr. Thomas, the library director, said, “That’s what a library’s job is — to respond to the needs of the community.”

“Those are their needs now,” he added. “Later, they may need Shakespeare. But those are their needs right now.”

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Without claiming a definitive link, a safety group said fatalities rose in states that legalized recreational use of cannabis. Elsewhere, they fell.

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Silicon Valley had strongly opposed the bill because it chips away at an existing law that gives internet companies broad immunity.

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