In wide-ranging remarks in her chambers on Friday that touched on affirmative action, abortion and same-sex marriage, Justice Ginsburg said she had made a mistake in joining a 2009 opinion that laid the groundwork for the court’s decision in June effectively striking down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The recent decision, she said, was “stunning in terms of activism.”
Unless they have a book to sell, Supreme Court justices rarely give interviews. Justice Ginsburg has given several this summer, perhaps in reaction to calls from some liberals that she step down in time for President Obama to name her successor.
On Friday, she said repeatedly that the identity of the president who would appoint her replacement did not figure in her retirement planning.
“There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president,” she said.
Were Mr. Obama to name Justice Ginsburg’s successor, it would presumably be a one-for-one liberal swap that would not alter the court’s ideological balance. But if a Republican president is elected in 2016 and gets to name her successor, the court would be fundamentally reshaped.
Justice Ginsburg has survived two bouts with cancer, but her health is now good, she said, and her work ethic exceptional. There is no question, on the bench or in chambers, that she has full command of the complex legal issues that reach the court.
Her age has required only minor adjustments.
“I don’t water-ski anymore,” Justice Ginsburg said. “I haven’t gone horseback riding in four years. I haven’t ruled that out entirely. But water-skiing, those days are over.”
Justice Ginsburg, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, said she intended to stay on the court “as long as I can do the job full steam, and that, at my age, is not predictable.”
“I love my job,” she added. “I thought last year I did as well as in past terms.”
With the departure of Justice John Paul Stevens in 2010, Justice Ginsburg became the leader of the court’s four-member liberal wing, a role she seems to enjoy. “I am now the most senior justice when we divide 5-4 with the usual suspects,” she said.
The last two terms, which brought major decisions on Mr. Obama’s health care law, race and same-sex marriage, were, she said, “heady, exhausting, challenging.”
She was especially critical of the voting rights decision, as well as the part of the ruling upholding the health care law that nonetheless said it could not be justified under Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce.
In general, Justice Ginsburg said, “if it’s measured in terms of readiness to overturn legislation, this is one of the most activist courts in history.”
The next term, which begins on Oct. 7, is also likely to produce major decisions, she said, pointing at piles of briefs in cases concerning campaign contribution limits and affirmative action.
There is a framed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 on a wall in her chambers. It is not a judicial decision, of course, but Justice Ginsburg counts it as one of her proudest achievements.
The law was a reaction to her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, the 2007 ruling that said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 imposed strict time limits for bringing workplace discrimination suits. She called on Congress to overturn the decision, and it did.
“I’d like to think that that will happen in the two Title VII cases from this term, but this Congress doesn’t seem to be able to move on anything,” she said.
“In so many instances, the court and Congress have been having conversations with each other, particularly recently in the civil rights area,” she said. “So it isn’t good when you have a Congress that can’t react.”
The recent voting rights decision, Shelby County v. Holder, also invited Congress to enact new legislation. But Justice Ginsburg, who dissented, did not sound optimistic.
“The Voting Rights Act passed by overwhelming majorities,” she said of its reauthorization in 2006, “but this Congress I don’t think is equipped to do anything about it.”
Asked if she was disappointed by the almost immediate tightening of voting laws in Texas and North Carolina after the decision, she chose a different word: “Disillusioned.”