Slate’s Amicus talks to Irin Carmon about her Ruth Bader Ginsburg biography, Notorious RBG.

How A Supreme Court Justice Became a Pop Culture Icon

How A Supreme Court Justice Became a Pop Culture Icon

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Sept. 22 2016 11:28 AM
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Explaining the Millennial Circus Surrounding Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Slate’s Amicus podcast talks to Irin Carmon, co-author of the biography, Notorious RBG.

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We’re posting transcripts of Amicus, our legal affairs podcast, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Episode 49 in which Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick talks with Irin Carmon, a national reporter at MSNBC and co-author of the best-selling biography Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

From being called schoolmarmish to being dubbed the Notorious RBG, Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made a splash in pop culture and modern day feminism. But since when did the 83-year-old become a figure popular enough to tattoo? Lithwick talks with Carmon about the Justice’s success among the millennial crowd.

And in the Slate Plus bonus segment, Lithwick talks with an actual proud owner of an RBG tattoo.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Amicus, click here.

Dahlia Lithwick: Welcome back to a brand new season of Amicus Slate Supreme Court podcast. I'm Dahlia Lithwick. I cover the High Court for Slate. As I'm sure you already know, Friday, September 16th, the day of this taping is the federally-mandated holiday, Constitution Day. And as of the day of this taping, Friday, Sept. 16th, Judge Merrick Garland has been waiting on a vote or a hearing for 184 days.

Now, when we last left you at the end of the 2015 term, the last handful of cases, blockbusters all, had just come down, and the various Justices were fanning out for the summer, where they would give speeches and travel and in at least one instance trash a presidential nominee. That's right. This is the slavish fangirl Notorious R.B.G. edition of Amicus in which we cave to the pressure of our listeners and celebrate the woman who had the guts/crazy temerity to call Donald Trump a faker last July, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Now, if you are not a Supreme Court wonk who covers other Supreme Court wonks, the whole Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon is kind of difficult to comprehend. What started as a cult Internet following a few years ago has turned into an all-out Millennial circus. And at 83, teeny, little Justice Ginsburg, with her collection of lacy jabots, her punishing daily workout schedule, has been renamed Notorious R.B.G. as a little hat tip to Notorious B.I.G., the rapper who was murdered in 1997.

Her fans or legion, they fete her every day with their T-shirts, their tote bags, their Halloween costumes, nail art, and tattoos. And just so you know, I have the tote bag. To help us understand how a diminutive octogenarian prone to sporting lacy gloves in public spaces, who lived most of her life in the shadows just trying to get along, has become a rock star to feminist Millennials is Irin Carmon. I've been wanting to have her on the show for so long, so I'm very excited.

She is a national reporter at MSNBC. She covers women's issues and politics and culture and the law. And she co-authored a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year called Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And so she is kind of a Ginsburg expert. So, welcome to the show, Irin.

Irin Carmon: Thank you, Dahlia. It's my life's dream to be on Amicus. I mean that with no sarcasm.

Lithwick: No, I take it with no sarcasm. What are you going to do tomorrow?

Carmon: Cry.

Lithwick: OK, so let's start with a question that everybody asks about Ginsburg, which is: How did this tiny, little octogenarian become this hipster chick, iconic, Kardashian-level rock star? Help us understand what happens to make someone who nobody was really talking or thinking about as a sort of cultural figure into a feminist hero in our time.

Carmon: Well, something that I think is beautiful about the Internet is that it allows people to discover people who have been there all along but may not have had - there may not have been the right moment or the right venue in which to celebrate them. I mean I like to say that it allows young women to choose their own heroes. So the Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon has been met with some befuddlement.

But to me it just seems completely obvious that this woman who overcame so much discrimination in her own life and who went on to transform the law for women would be somebody to celebrate even before she ever got to the Supreme Court.

But the precise moment of this was when in 2013 Justice Ginsburg put on her spiky dissenting collar—which she told Katie Couric she wears different collars for different purposes, and this one looks fit for dissenting—and she dissented in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. And as you know, by that point she had started to break from this figure that she'd become known as—this sort of consensus-seeking, careful, ladylike character—because she was pissed off.

And I think it probably started around Bush v. Gore, but it reached its peak around a lot of the decisions under the Roberts Court that were really dragging things to the right and I think, in particular, Shelby County, because it combined racial justice and not deferring to the legislative judgment of Congress, not deferring to evidence to sort of declare that racism was over. And she kind of spoke in something that could have been a tweet.

Her famous line from Shelby County was, you know, throwing away preclearance, the system by which the Justice Department had refereed racist laws or laws that disproportionately affected people of color, she said, "Getting rid of preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you're not getting wet." And that was the first line on my co-author Shana Knizhnik's Tumblr, Notorious RBG, which playfully combined her with this 400-pound deceased rapper, Notorious B.I.G., you know, just playing up a little bit of the contrast but also this idea of swagger coming in all forms.

And the rest is a lot of history of nail art and tattoos that really stress Justice Ginsburg out.

Lithwick: Does it stress her out? It seems that she loves this.

Carmon: Oh, she loves it, not the tattoos, though. She actually came up to me at an event and asked to speak with me and told me that she wanted me to convey the message that the tattoos were going too far.

Lithwick: OK, so listeners, everybody, whatever, turn your RBG—your Notorious RBG tattoo into like what? Like a large tuna, something, but not—a goddess of indiscriminate originate.

Carmon: Yeah. I mean it was a moment that I realized she was a Jewish grandma—in addition to everything else that she is.

Lithwick: She doesn't like the tattoos.

Carmon: She was like, "Why would you do something permanent?"

Lithwick: No tattoos, OK. So, here's the sort of follow-on question. I know this unfair to ask you. I should probably ask her. But I know you and I have both interviewed her, and one of the things she talks about is how sort of there's a way in which young women - and I think she probably means women who are younger than you and I - sort of really, really younger Millennial women still don't quite get how far we've come in her lifetime and that, I think, one of the things she despairs of is, you know, on the one hand, she is this iconic feminist figure. And she's on every tote bag and apparently on a lot of tattoos.

But on the other hand, I think she feels as though we kind of can't even believe that she had to hide her pregnancy when she was teaching at Rutgers. So, help square how she looks at us with how we look at her.

Carmon: Well, I semi-reluctantly—I am a millennial. I'm 33. I'm an old millennial. But I notice that she doesn't actually really say that anymore. I mean it's funny because sometimes I will speak to people, and somebody - and I'll talk about what young feminists are doing in terms of activism and blogging and the Internet and fighting for various causes. And then, inevitably, somebody will raise their hand and say, "But why aren't young women feminists?" And I'm like, "Did you hear anything I just said?"

I actually think that since the last couple of years of Notorious R.B.G. has actually been a way in which young feminists are expressing their admiration for Justice Ginsburg as a way to protest and engage with the conservative decisions of the Court of the Roberts era.

And it's been part of wanting to have this figure—there are so few role models for women in power, as you very well know—this figure who manages to both profoundly be herself and hold a position of power at the highest court. And I think it's actually a symptom. It's not sort of the beginning and the end of a resurgence of feminism. And I know Justice Ginsburg has been one of those people who has said, "Why don't young feminists have the fighting spirit?" But I think there's actually substantial data showing young women identify as feminists more than Gen X did.

I think that there's fierce activism out there where I think we're actually experiencing a real Renaissance in young women's feminism right now.

Lithwick: So, that brings me to—I'm trying to think of how to segue this, and I want to segue this by talking a little bit about Hillary Clinton because it's almost unavoidable, that there are parallels between the way these two path-breaking feminists are treated. And it brings me to Ruth Bader Ginsburg's comments from July when she decided—and I think this dovetails so nicely with what you said earlier.

She’s become a real voice at the court—I think I almost want to say a badass voice - that transcends gender and transcends, certainly her reputation as this white-gloved, careful consensus-builder. Let's listen for a minute, and then let's talk about some of the things she said about Donald Trump. Here's NBC's Pete Williams reporting on the "scandal" from July.

Pete Williams: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the Court's most outspoken Justice off the bench, but her biting remarks about Donald Trump have legal experts saying she went too far. To the New York Times quote, "I can't imagine what the country would be with Donald Trump as our president." She said it reminded her of something her husband, Martin, who died in 2010, would have said. "Now it's time for us to move to New Zealand." To author Joan Biskupic, "He is a faker. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns?"

Asked by the AP about a Trump victory, quote, "I don't want to think about that possibility." Trump himself calls her remarks a disgrace and says she should apologize to her colleagues, adding, "I would hope that she would get off the Court as soon as possible."

Lithwick: So, maybe before I ask specific questions, I would just ask the general question: What was she thinking when she - I mean that was not one interview. That was a series of interviews over the course of a couple of days in which she just lit into Donald Trump. What was going on?

Carmon: Look. If you had said to me even six months ago that Justice Ginsburg was going to speak this way about a Republican presidential candidate, I would've said, "Never. It would never happen." I mean no one - as much as she is one of the more outspoken Justices, she's usually done so within very strict parameters. She’s done so in her dissents. She's done so by talking about cases. It's very rare for her to step into any kind of arena like this, let alone using the kind of language that she did.

So, I was surprised. I can only attribute it to the fact that Donald Trump is not a normal candidate. We are all kind of having to regard him as such because he was nominated by a major party. But he's such an affront to everything that she's fought for in her life, and not in some sort of like courtly "we can work with this" Mitt Romney kind of way. But everything about him defies norms of civil liberties, of discourse, of - she mentions releasing his tax returns.

Her husband was a tax attorney. This sort of like institutionalism that she's devoted her life to, that there are certain ways in which you express disagreement, I think she's just been pushed to the edge. And I also think it's important to look at it in the context of the Merrick Garland nomination. She often talks about what a model of comity her own nomination was. Now, of course, it was a Democratic president and a Democratic-controlled Senate. But it was a 97 to 3 vote.

She was championed by Republicans like Oren Hatch. And, of course, she was famously friends with Justice Scalia. As much as she is this liberal lion in her public-facing persona, she's also someone who's really prided herself about working with the other side. But this is somebody who after months of Republicans refusing to even hold a hearing on a qualified nominee and to their standing by this sort of loudish, rude, sexist, racist, misogynistic candidate - again, I have not discussed this with Justice Ginsburg, but I can only guess that this is what's going through her head.

And the last thing I would say is that it really surprised me - okay. One interview was sort of like the subtle burn of Ginsburg. And then the second interview a couple of days later, it was like, bam. And the third interview was like digging her heels in. And that was after there was already significant backlash. And, of course, she ended up saying that she regretted those comments and she shouldn't have said them, although she didn't back away from their substance.

And I kind of - someone pointed out to me who's an observer of hers, said, "You know, it kind of reminds me of when people told her it was time for her to retire. She hates being told what to do." And she did not get to where she is by sort of backing down. And there is a stubborn streak to her that is part of what has made her great. And so I think actually all of the backlash just caused her to become even more fierce and furious in her critique.

Lithwick: Let me throw this out as a fourth hypothesis.

And I credit Professor - I guess Dean Erwin Chemerinsky at UC Irvine, who I did an event with while this was going on. And he pointed out to how formative the Red Scare was to her thinking and how much she thinks about - and in this sense, it's important to remember that she's in her 80s - how much she thinks about fascism and political movements and that, you know, unlike the rest of us, she actually has a sense of what totalitarian government does and that she was choosing to sort of pull out the pin and drop this grenade because it resonated with a kind of governance that young Americans have no idea what that looks like, but she actually does.

Carmon: Well, she's somebody who was born in 1933 in a Jewish enclave in Brooklyn. I absolutely think that's the case. First, she grew up as a child learning about the Holocaust. And survivors were coming back to Brooklyn at that time. And then as a high school student, I mean there were people in her high school who were victims of the Red Scare. I mean they thought that they were coming after the Jews. As the sort of McCarthyism disproportionately focused on people who were her people.

When she was at Cornell, there was a professor who was fired by Cornell because of red-baiting and McCarthyism. And so it is literally the reason she became a lawyer, was because she saw that there were lawyers who were standing up for the First Amendment during that time that she was at Cornell. And so I think it's absolutely the case that that shaped her reaction to Donald Trump as he calls for bans on Muslims and questions the loyalty of people or questions the Americanness of people like Judge Curiel.

Lithwick: So, let's take two steps back and put on your - not your Ginsburg crown but your watcher of the Court hat. What's your take on - is this improper? Did she imperil the legitimacy of the Court I mean beyond just the appearance that she inserted herself into an election in ways that I don't think we've seen historically? But then the coda to that question would be: Is she going to have to recuse in a Bush v. Gore? Is this going to be a 4-3, in the most practical sense? Has she really stuck her foot in it, or is this over?

Carmon: So, I have no information about why she eventually issued the statement backing away from it, but I do wonder whether potentially there was somebody within the Court, perhaps Chief Justice Roberts, perhaps one of the Justices she's close to, like Justice Kagan. I don't know, but I wonder whether that would have been the one thing that would have caused her to kind of draw back from what she did.

As recusal would be totally up to her, and I don't think she would do it. I'm ambivalent about it because I do think that the backlash to it was kind of heated and opportunistic, I thought was disproportionate. At the same time, I think it would've been more effective for her purposes if she had used language more like her customary burns.

I mean I have said that she is the master of the sub-tweet. As you know, her writing can often be very subtle, very understated as much as she's known as the Great Dissenter.

And so had she used more specific language in her critique, had she been more subtle in it, it might have had a different impact. As it stands, the result is that Donald Trump, of all people, looked like he was the one defending norms of civility and discourse and propriety. And I'm sure that that's not an outcome that she would have liked.

Lithwick: So, let's turn for a moment to Merrick Garland because you mentioned him earlier in the show.

And I do think she has taken a very different posture even from her progressive colleagues of the Court over the last couple of months when the Court was 4-4 and it was clear that in crucial cases they were deadlocked. Cases are going to have to come back. There are massive consequences to having a deadlocked Court. And there's Justice Breyer, there's Justice Alito, everyone, saying, "Yeah. We're fine. It's good. We're bumping along."

And she has really staked out a position where she's pretty consistently said, "No. This sucks. This is not normal. We can't persist this way for another year." And I wonder if - and I think it's maybe, just to flow back to what you just said about the norms of how we talk about the Court, that she is really fighting this norm that says, even when the Court isn't functioning, the Court likes to say it's functioning.

And she's really taken a different position and said, "No. We can't function because the Senate is being stupid, and they need to get on with this." And we know even as recently as last week she was saying to students at Georgetown Law School a version of that. Let's listen for a minute.

Justice Ginsburg: I do think that cooler heads will prevail, I hope sooner rather than later. The president is elected for four years, not three years. So, the power that he has in Year 3 continues into Year 4. And maybe some members of the Senate will wake up and appreciate that that's how it should be.

Lithwick: What do you think it means, that she's hiving off even from her progressive colleagues at the Court and taking a really strong position to say, "It's not okay with me that we have this vacancy"?

Carmon: I would say on this front, I'm more surprised at her progressive colleagues than I am surprised at her because no one has to vote yes or no. But declining to even hold hearings, to even give the kind of due respect that every other nominee has been given, I think, is highly unusual. And the fact that even Justice Breyer has kind of said, "Eh, it's not such a big deal. We'll be fine," that makes it seem normal. But it's not normal. I think her comments are completely proper and historically on point.

And I would just put it in the context of the fact that she like - I mean she loves it. This is so nerdy. She loves it when all the different branches of government work together productively. Like it's just that simple. I mean that's - when people talked about her dissent in the Lilly Ledbetter case, it was a lot of like, "Wow. she's really standing up for other women like her who have been discriminated against." But if you ask her about it, she said, "It's so great. Congress picked up what I was asking for."

Lithwick: Right, right.

Carmon: "And then the President signed it."

She loves institutions functioning in ways that reach consensus and that reach a just result through the democratic process. And here you just have these guys on the Judiciary Committee and Mitch McConnell putting their hands on their ears and saying like, "Na-na-na-na-na. I can't hear Merrick Garland's name." And I think that makes her crazy. And I do think it's completely within her right to say that it actually politicizes the Court in a way that even goes beyond her comments about Trump or at least is commensurate with them.

What is more political than saying, "I refuse to let this president, even though it is fully within his rights and within his term, because I really want the other guy to win. And if not, we'll see."

Lithwick: It's funny because I'm trying to imagine all the people who have the Notorious R.B.G. tattoos scrubbing them and putting on tattoos that say, "We love functioning government. All three branches should work together." It's catchy. We could make it a thing.

Carmon:  To me this is like the paradox because - and, I do want to go back to what you said about the parallels between Hillary Clinton and Ginsburg because there is something ironic about the Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon, which was completely organic and not planned by any kind of marketing body. It was just people who thought she was cool. When she was nominated, many people thought she was the least exciting person. And many feminists thought, uh-oh.

Finally, we get someone on the Court after decades of Republican rule, and it's this woman, who like seems to be kind of a moderate, and she's not exciting, and she's too old. And we quote from this column that Alan Dershowitz wrote at the time of her nomination. And he says like, "It's an insult to compare her to Thurgood Marshall. She just did a couple of appellate cases while women's rights were really in vogue. She's not a particularly good intellect." And then this is my favorite. "She's schoolmarmish."

Lithwick: Ouch.

Carmon: Yeah, and I write in the book that we have yet to come up with a male equivalent of schoolmarmish. Although whatever it is, I think it could apply to Justice Breyer. And so here's the thing. I mean how many of those things have been said about Hillary Clinton? She's too incrementalist. She's too much in the institution. She's too much of an insider. She's not exciting.

Lithwick: She just worked her whole life, and it doesn't count for anything.

Carmon: Right, she’s the one doing the cleanup behind the scenes while the men beat their chests.

Lithwick: So, I want to ask you about one last thing before I let you go.

And you flicked at it earlier, and that is her dissent in Shelby County, which it's interesting that you date the sort of beginning of the Notorious R.B.G. phenomenon to it. It is certainly a moment in which she steps out of her - you know, the pulley tests of the 1960s. I think, until that moment, we would say that both she and O'Connor had a sort of "get along, get along; the men like it better when you get along" quality.

And something changes in Shelby County. And I just want to play for you a moment of her dissent in Shelby County when she's reading it aloud from the bench, which we should note she didn't used to do very often. She's started doing it more. But here's Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissenting from the bench in Shelby County.

Justice Ginsburg: The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act foresaw progress even in Alabama.
"The arc of the moral universe is long," he said, "but it bends toward justice if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion." That commitment has been disserved by today's decision.

Lithwick: There are so many things I love about this moment. One of the things I love is that people use that "arc of the moral universe" in a passive sense, that the universe, it's bending itself toward justice.

And she reminds us, I think, in her wonky way, "No, no. There has to be this steadfast commitment." But I think this also prefigures, right, the fight we are now having in this country about race and structural racism and voting. There's a way in which she's reminding us of what is to come in a way that has almost completely been borne out, right?

Carmon: It's funny because I think we actually - I have something in the book about that precise passage because to me it's the most inverted thing in the world, to add to this soaring rhetoric, "if you do the work," right? She's always been about doing the work and the kind of constant vigilance. And you're right. She was playing a prophetic role in Shelby County because, as we've seen, I think that that rainstorm metaphor that she put in her written dissent was - she subsequently said, "You know, we put the umbrella down, and now the storm is raging."

And, of course, there's been an avalanche of laws that restrict the franchise. And when I interviewed Justice Ginsburg and asked her about race, she said something like, "You can't just flip a switch and it's over," you know? And she's always somebody who tries to see the best in people but societally, politically, or economically, structurally calls out racism in all of its presences. And so she was right. That is precisely what happened. Many of these laws would not have happened with preclearance.

Lithwick: Irin Carmon is a national reporter for MSNBC. She covers women's issues, politics, culture, and the law, and she co-authored a really tremendous biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year called Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Thank you so very much for being on our first podcast of the season.

Carmon: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

* * *

Lithwick: So, after we talked to Irin about the book and the RBG phenomenon, we became sort of obsessed on this show with the question of, who are these Millennials walking around these United States sporting RBG tattoos? And oddly enough, it turned out to be pretty easy to find someone. And so joining us now is Cooper Sirwatka, who actually I'm told has an RBG tattoo. And so welcome, Cooper, to Amicus.

Cooper Sirwatka: Thank you.

Lithwick: Now, I have to start by saying I think you might be our first true youngster on the show. How old are you?

Sirwatka: Twenty-nine.

Lithwick: And you are an attorney, correct?

Sirwatka: Yes.

Lithwick: And do you want to tell us what kind of law you practice?

Sirwatka: I do fair housing work in Westchester County.

Lithwick: So, start by telling us, I guess I just have to say describe your RBG tattoo.

Sirwatka: It takes up the whole upper part of my right arm. It's RBG in her iconic black robes with scales of justice behind her and a sash that says, "Notorious RBG."

Lithwick: Awesome, now I have to ask you – do you have any other tattoos?

Sirwatka: I have another dozen. This is my biggest color piece, though. Everything else is pretty much black and white.

Lithwick: And your others are not Sam Alito, Clarence Thomas, and John Roberts, right?

Sirwatka: No.

Lithwick: Okay, so this is your only Supreme Court Justice tattoo.

Sirwatka: Yes.

Lithwick: And when did you first become aware that there was a Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Planet Earth?

Sirwatka: Had to be in like middle school or high school, probably like 13, 14. I grew up in a really rural conservative part of New York and, as a result, spent a lot of time reading - and reading a lot of blogs and newspaper articles. And I first encountered, I don't even remember what the political issue was, but I remember being like, "Oh. There's someone with power that is not conservative. Go figure."

I sort of came of age during the Bush Administration, so it was a kind of mind-boggling phenomenon. So, I remember reading about her. I mean like, "Oh, my God. She exists. She's real and has a voice."

Lithwick: And this was before the RBG, Notorious, rapper, gangsta phenomenon, right? This is just you independently coming at RBG as a kind of boring, old lady?

Sirwatka: Yeah, yeah. It was, early 2000s, far before she was like a pop culture icon.

Lithwick: And I guess when she becomes - around 2013, when she becomes a pop culture icon, are you thinking to yourself, what took you all so long?

Sirwatka: Yeah, like I almost felt like I missed it, like the pop culture part of it, because I was in law school at the time.

And I was like really occupied, obviously, studying. And I feel like I came up for air at the end of one semester and realized that there were T-shirts and books and that this was a thing now. And I was like, "How did this not happen before?" I feel like it almost happened overnight. And I felt like I like missed the boat in a lot of ways because I was like, "I was there, and now I'm busy, and I missed all these fun things happening."

Lithwick: Did Ruth Bader Ginsburg play any part in your decision to go to law school and become a lawyer?

Sirwatka: I think she very much played a role in my decision to practice the kind of law that I do. I resisted going to law school for a long time. I was always - I was in high school, and they said, "You're going to be a lawyer." And I was like, "No. I'm never going to law school, never going to law school, never going to law school." I studied creative writing and literature in undergrad, and I was like, "I'm going to go get my Ph.D." And finally it came about that I went to law school through a series of strange decisions. And I think the decision to go into public interest work was very much influenced by RBG and by some of the dissents that I read in law school.

And I was like, "There's somebody out there who is giving a voice to the kind of people I want to give a voice to."

Lithwick: What year was it that you decided to get inked permanently?

Sirwatka: I got my tattoo in winter of 2014-2015 after I graduated law school and was no longer living on student loans. So, I put it off for a couple of years only because of I needed an actual income to justify it. And I really thought about it for a long time, and I mulled it over. And I talked to my tattoo artist, and he drew a couple things. And one drawing he had made was just perfect, and I was like, "This is it." And we did it the next day.

Lithwick: And how do people react when they see it? I mean are people mostly baffled, or they get it, or does anybody want to hit you?

Sirwatka: I've yet to get the hitting response. Luckily, it's on my upper arm.

So, it's sort of selective, who gets to see it. And so I find that, when I do show it to people, either they don't get it. There's a vast number of people that are like, "Who is that?" which is baffling to me in so many ways. So this summer I was at the beach, and the number of people that came up to me and were like, "I really like your tattoo. I really like your tattoo." My poor wife. I don't think we walked like three feet without somebody interrupting us.

But it creates such a sense of community. I was at the beach and instantly felt comfortable with random strangers because I now had this thing to talk to them about. And it's like this community organizing point in a lot of ways in my life. A number of professional connections, personal connections, some people just being like, "Oh. I really like your tattoo," or, "Oh. I hear you have this tattoo."

Lithwick: That's how we found you. Now, Cooper, can I ask you, what is it that makes this, you know, under-100-pound, frail, old lady the best and in many ways most vital icon of progressive values, feminist values, the kind of things that so inspired you even when you were young? I mean this is not necessarily the person you would expect particularly really young Americans to gravitate to. So, what is it that she brings to this conversation that is otherwise lacking in sort of pop culture?

Sirwatka: I think it really is that juxtaposition of, you look at her in the pictures of the Court in her robes and sitting in that chair. And the chair swallows her. And then you read her opinions, and you hear her ideas, and they're so strong and so insightful. And there's something really moving about the idea that, this small, frail woman can have such a powerful, strong voice.

And I think especially politically now with so many groups gaining more and more rights and voice and visibility, to look to somebody like RBG, who you wouldn't look at her and think that she is going to say the things that she says and is going to write the positions she does. But she does, and they're powerful, and they're moving. I think that juxtaposition really hits a nerve particularly with me and with a lot of people in my social circles and intellectual circles.

It's the idea that you can be this small woman, and you can have a huge voice and a huge impact.

Lithwick: Cooper Sirwatka is walking around a beach near you with a Notorious RBG tattoo. He's a lawyer in New York. Cooper, we thank you so much for joining us. And we are going to pop a photo of Cooper's tattoo on our website. Thank you for being here.

Sirwatka: Thank you.

Lithwick: And that is going to do it for today's edition of Amicus. We are eager, as ever, to hear your thoughts and questions and also to see your tattoos, particularly the Clarence Thomas and Sam Alito tattoos. So, please send all those pictures and your letters to Amicus@slate.com. We love your mail. And in case you're wondering what's actually going to be happening at the Court this coming term, we're going to be teeing all of that up for you on our 2016 Term Preview two weeks from today.

Between now and then, you can catch up on any old Amicus episodes you may have missed. They are all on our show page, Slate.com/amicus. If you're a Slate Plus member, you'll also find transcripts of our shows there. And if you're not a member, well, there's never been a better time to sign up for Slate Plus. For Slate's 20th anniversary, for a limited time, we're offering 30% off an annual membership. That's just $35 for a year of Slate Plus.

So, if you haven't joined Plus yet, please sign up before this offer goes away at Slate.com/amicusplus. A big thanks goes out, as always, to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, where our show is taped. And thank you also to Oyez, which provided this week's excerpts from the Supreme Court's public sessions. You'll find that audio at oyez.org. Our producer is Tony Field. Our executive producer is Steve Lickteig. And the chief content officer of Panoply is Andy Bowers.

Amicus is part of the Panoply Network. Check out our entire roster of podcasts at iTunes.com/panoply. I'm Dahlia Lithwick. Thank you so much for listening. We'll be back with you very soon with another edition of Amicus.