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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Impact On The U.S. Legal System

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to turn now to Jeffrey Rosen. Rosen is president and CEO of the National Constitution Center and author of the book "Conversations With RBG."

Welcome back to the program.

JEFFREY ROSEN: Thank you.

CORNISH: Now, we know you had many conversations with her for this book but in general. And I was wondering if you could just describe what it was like to spend that time with her.

ROSEN: It was one of the greatest honors of my life. It's impossible to describe the power of the example of this remarkable woman. Conversations were unlike any others. There are long pauses that you have to sit silently with because it's in those pauses that she was thinking of something very special to say. And then she would come out with a statement of such originality and power and brilliance that it took everyone's breath away. Last night, the National Constitution Center offered a tribute video to her remarkable achievements, and it now appears as a memorial to her blessed memory. And we assembled her favorite opera singers and special friends, ones - people that she had selected to pay tribute to her. And the overwhelming emotion that came through this tribute was the focus and determination and courage of this woman. She was able to make more of each moment of the day than anyone that any of us have ever had the privilege of meeting. And as a result, she became the most important advocate of gender equality in our time and one of the most important figures for constitutional change in American history.

CORNISH: We want to talk a little bit about her impact on the legal system. She took her seat on the court in 1993. Is there a case that you think really reflected who she was as a jurist and her legacy?

ROSEN: Well, her most celebrated case was the U.S. v. Virginia case, the Virginia Military Institute case, where she, writing for the court, struck down all-male military academies. And in that case, she drew on the principle that she'd insisted on as an advocate, which is that stereotypes about the way men and women are cannot be used to limit the opportunities available to either gender. And it was remarkable how closely she drew on a case - one of her law clerks reflected on this last night - that she had lost years ago in Philadelphia involving all-male public schools. And meticulously, building block by building block throughout the 1970s, she persuaded the Supreme Court to dismantle the idea that separate treatment could ever be equal. And she wrote that into law in her landmark decision in the VMI case.

CORNISH: What do you make in this final moment of her statement that she passed on through her granddaughter about not wanting a successor until after the election?

ROSEN: Well, she fiercely believed in the vision of embracive equality that she articulated. And I don't think there's any doubt. She told her granddaughter that she is deeply concerned with the legitimacy of the court, which she cared about above all. And I think out of all of her achievements, she would have been very - she tried to hold on. And she would have been very distressed by the idea that the fight to fill her seat could have been the source of a political explosion. So in honor of the legitimacy of the court itself, to avoid the retaliations and fights that could destroy it as an institution, I'm sure that her granddaughter was accurate in reporting her side of this (ph). And she hoped the seat would not be filled until after the election.

CORNISH: That was Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, author of the book "Conversations With RBG." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.