With O'Connor off the bench, Ginsburg goes it alone

Sunday, February 19, 2006

WASHINGTON -- It will be a different scene Tuesday when the black-robed justices of the Supreme Court emerge from behind a red, velvet curtain and take their seats at the mahogany bench.

Instead of two female justices, there will only be one.

Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court, retired last month. That left Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the lone female among the nine justices, a distinction she seems unhappy about.

"I would not like to be the only woman on the court," Ginsburg said in a speech last September, a practical appeal to President Bush to send up another woman.

Bush complied, but nominee Harriet Miers withdrew after Republican conservatives strongly opposed her. The president then turned to veteran federal judge Samuel Alito, who will hear his first cases as a justice when the high court meets Tuesday.

O'Connor's absence, coming after nearly a quarter-century on the court, will be felt in the weeks and months ahead by Ginsburg -- and her male colleagues -- as they adjust following a period of death, retirement and the addition of two new members.

"She's shy and quiet and seems chilly when you don't know her but is intensely attached to friends," said lawyer Kathleen Peratis, whom Ginsburg hired in the 1970s to succeed her at the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think not having a woman to play with is going to be a big gap."

O'Connor and Ginsburg indeed enjoyed a playful and, at times, competitive relationship.

They sat apart on the bench but sometimes exchanged notes and knowing glances during arguments. Both are quick, concise writers who jockeyed each term to be first to write an opinion for the court.

Ginsburg and O'Connor were soul mates in a relationship based on mutual respect and the shared experiences of the discrimination they faced entering the male-dominated legal profession in the 1950s.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., the petite Ginsburg has become one to watch because of her age, health and feeble appearance.

That image is sure to be enhanced when she is seen in public with her male colleagues, some of them considerably younger and more robust.

In 1999, Ginsburg had surgery for colon cancer and had chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

Off the court, she will have plenty to keep her busy. Ginsburg is an opera devotee and frequent public speaker who likes to travel.

She once appeared in a white wig and full costume in a Washington Opera production with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she socializes. A photo of them riding an elephant in India in 1994 is posted on a Northwestern University legal Web site.

Ginsburg also enjoys, as does O'Connor, Washington's social scene, where the two could well run into each other sometime over cocktails.

If not, Ginsburg can always go next door.

As a retired justice, O'Connor gets to keep an office at the Supreme Court. She recently moved from her first-floor chambers into smaller digs on the second floor, where Ginsburg has an office.

Associated Press writer Gina Holland contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Virtual tour of Ginsburg's chambers:


Ginsburg biography: http://www.supremecourthistory.org/myweb/justice/ginsburg.htm

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