The Supreme Cult of Personality

Ruth Bader Ginsburg admits she nodded off during the State of the Union after too much wine. Why do such personal details excite so many Americans?

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Can Ruth Bader Ginsburg get any more charming? Already grandmotherly, spunky, and delightfully ready to embrace her "Notorious R.B.G." image, the justice admitted Thursday that she nodded off during President Obama's State of the Union after imbibing just a little too much at dinner:

We sit there, stone-faced, the sober judges, but we’re not—at least I wasn’t—100 percent sober, because before we went to the State of the Union we had dinner together, and I vowed this year, "Just sparkling water, stay away from the wine!" But in the end, the dinner was so delicious it needed wine to accompany it.

As Time put it, "Supreme Court Justices: they’re just like us!"

Ginsburg is having a moment. In addition to the meme likening her to the great emcee—she apparently hands out "Notorious R.B.G." gear to her friends—she's been on a tear. She dispenses zingers liberally (how else would she dispense them?): "People ask me sometimes, 'When do you think it will be enough? When will there be enough women on the court?' And my answer is when there are nine." She offers political analysis, saying the country is ready for gay marriage. She casually dismisses those who call for her to step down: "Who do you think President Obama could appoint at this very day, given the boundaries that we have? If I resign any time this year, he could not successfully appoint anyone I would like to see in the court."

There's even a comic opera based on her friendship—rooted in attending the opera, natch—with her polar-opposite colleague Antonin Scalia coming out soon. This tiny, bookish, 81-year-old constitutional-law nerd is a celebrity.

It's a strange phenomenon. The Supreme Court's air of detached remove has largely dissipated; like the rest of the nation, it's becoming increasingly politicized, and the idea that it's an apolitical body, always a fiction, has lost some of its hold on Americans. Yet in many ways the Court remains incomprehensible. There are still no cameras allowed in hearings. It delivers its decisions in obscure ways, after obscure hearings on obscure topics, aligning around and clashing over obscure topics.

That might explain why we line up to hear Supreme Court justices provide such fleeting insights into their lives. The event where Ginsburg tipped her hand about her tipsiness was a discussion with Scalia. There was discussion of jurisprudence, which Robert Barnes runs down lucidly, but that's understandably not what makes the headlines. The issues aren't easy to understand; they tends to be fairly abstract, rather that relating to specific matters (one reason Ginsburg's comments about gay marriage caused such a stir is that they were specific). Besides, the views expressed are often pretty predictable: Ginsburg thinks the system favors white men, Scalia deplores the idea that the Constitution is a living document. Tell us something we don't know.

Learning about these personal details satisfies the curiosity Americans feel about the nine robed figures who exert so much power—or at least provides the illusion that what they do can be understood. Citizens treat politicians similarly, delving into their character and hobbies and warily eying their policy proposals, but the gap between what's known and what isn't is much greater with the justices. Ironically, it's happening at a time when aspiring justices must work hard to make sure they don't leave too incriminating a paper trail that might derail future confirmation hearings. William O. Douglas may have been able to get away with decades of rumors about womanizing, but Douglas Ginsburg couldn't even get away with the occasional toke. No one wants his or her nomination to meet the same fate.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be the star at the moment, but she's not alone. Longtime Court journalist and Sonia Sotomayor biographer Joan Biskupic deemed her subject the first celebrity justice. Scalia's 2013 interview with New York was a media phenomenon. Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington Law School, has described Scalia as a celebrity, too—a development Turley views with chagrin:

Where Scalia has ventured with crowd-pleasing rhetoric, other justices are following. They rally their bases on the right or the left with speeches, candid interviews, commencement addresses and book tours. They appear to be abandoning the principle of strict neutrality in public life, long a touchstone of service on the highest court.

In a 2009 paper, George Mason Law School Professors Craig S. Lerner and Nelson Lund lamented the celebrity turn, linking it to other trends—"the Court’s ever-more-intrusive role in American political life, the Court’s chronic proclivity toward splintered decisions, and a certain easygoing attitude toward the precedents that provide our caselaw with what stability it enjoys"—and calling on the justices to better sequester themselves from public life.

Good luck with that. Just as the people seem to clamor for more information about the justices' private lives, the justices seem to enjoy the fawning attention. Why settle for 15 minutes of fame when you can have a lifetime appointment?