Ginsburg Returns to Supreme Court as Sole Female Justice

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.

Though close in age -- Ginsburg is 72 and O'Connor 75 -- and with birthdays less than two weeks apart in March, they are different in political ideology and personality.

O'Connor is a moderate conservative with an outgoing personality, reflecting the politician she was before becoming a judge. Ginsburg, shy and reserved, is one of the court's most liberal members.

Last term, they split on several issues.

Ginsburg voted with the majority to bar juvenile executions, let the federal government trump state medical marijuana law, and allow the confiscation of private homes to make way for new development. O'Connor dissented in all three cases.

But both have expressed concern about defendants in death penalty cases getting good legal representation, and they have come down on the same side in sex discrimination and recent religion cases.

O'Connor's absence may affect Ginsburg personally in the near term, but not professionally, associates say.

"Group dynamics obviously matter when nine people interact, and of course it's impossible to know how this change will affect the court and Justice Ginsburg," said Neil Siegel, a former Ginsburg clerk who teaches law at Duke University.

"That said, she's such a smart, experienced jurist. ... I don't see how her thinking will change just because there's a man sitting in Justice O'Connor's seat," he said.

Being the only woman or one of a few women is not new to Ginsburg; she has been there many times in her nearly 73 years.

Ginsburg was one of the few women in law school -- she attended Harvard and graduated from Columbia -- before becoming the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School.

When President Carter appointed her to a federal appeals court in 1980, she again was one of the few female judges in the federal system. She marked another milestone in 1993 when President Clinton chose her to become only the second female justice.

Before donning her judge's robes, Ginsburg advocated women's rights and equality of the sexes as an ACLU lawyer, fighting against the kind of "only woman" status she now represents on the court.

"She is going to be once again pivotal for the future of women's rights," said Kate Michelman, former president of the abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America. "She's come full circle in a sense."

Michelman was referring to the rightward turn the court is expected to take with Alito's addition. He is more conservative than O'Connor, who was a deciding vote in many 5-4 cases.

Ginsburg is businesslike on the bench. She asks precise questions but is not one to pummel the sometimes nervous lawyers with them. She brings stacks of case briefs and other documents to court and refers to them during arguments.

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.