Photo courtesy of MaryAnn Shea

(Left to right) Patrice Michaels and James Ginsburg, son and daughter-in-law of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sit with Angelin Chang to discuss "Notorious RBG in Song" with Cleveland Stater Reporter Victoria Shea.

May 6, 2019

'Notorious RBG' comes to Cleveland

Cleveland State takes a week to explore the life and legacy of RBG in words, music and song

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For the last 25 years, she has sat on the bench of the highest court in the nation – the Supreme Court. Before that, she served in the appellant courts, first as defense counsel and later as a judge, where she gave voice to people of both sexes who had faced discrimination.

During the week of April 15, 2019, the Cleveland State University community had a rare opportunity to see Bader Ginsburg through the eyes of some of her biggest fans – her son James and his wife Patrice Michaels.

Guests of Dr. Angelin Chang, professor of law and music at Cleveland State, Ginsburg and Michaels spent much of their time interacting with the university community, from visiting several music-related classes to performing on the stage of Drinko Hall, showing audiences a side of the Supreme Court justice that many are not privileged to see.

Ginsburg discusses his mother

Speaking before a moot courtroom packed with students and outside spectators, mainly lawyers, as well as non-legal fans of RBG, James Ginsburg responded to questions regarding his mother – her career and success in the field of law.

The event, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Discussion Presented by James Ginsburg,” Tuesday, April 16, honored all of Ginsburg’s work during her 25 years on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Responding to questions asked by Lee Fisher, dean of Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Ginsburg intertwined responses highlighting snippets of her life and his own career as a producer of classical music.

In 2018, Ginsburg produced on his music label, Cedille Records, “The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs,” for which his wife, Patrice Michaels composed the music and lyrics.

Fisher had jokingly alluded to the possibility of Ginsburg revealing some family secrets in his opening remarks, and although Ginsburg laughed, he didn’t reveal any truly “unknown” family secrets.

Fisher’s questions explored RBG’s experience as a lawyer as well as how the law related to her son’s professional career, but queries from the audience focused on gaining more insight into scenes from ... the recent biopic, “On the Basis of Sex,” which explored her early career. There were also questions about her special camaraderie with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

As the discussion concluded, Ginsburg shared a final thought, which Fisher credited as an “extra gem” that attendees could say, “We heard it first at Cleveland-Marshall.”

“I guess I’d like to tell a story that illustrates the wonderful relationship between my parents,” said Ginsburg as he prefaced his anecdote. “You know, we talked about not taking yourself too seriously, and I think my father was a big help in that.”

“I mentioned golfing over weekends,” Ginsburg continued. “My mother, as you know, is deliberate in all the things she does, and there was one time we were on the green and she was hunched way over on a put for the longest time, and my father finally came around to the back of her and said gently ‘I believe you’re supposed to face east.’ That, in a nut shell was their relationship.”

“Notorious RBG in Song”

“A labor of love on so many levels!” is how Ginsburg described “Notorious RBG in Song,” the musical tribute created by his wife about his mother. And rightfully so, as he loves the woman it is about -- his mother. As well as the woman who composed nine of the 13 songs – his wife.

“I wrote a song cycle about my mother-in-law that came to be because my husband and his sister wanted to give their mom a special gift for her 80th birthday,” said Patrice Michaels in response to a question about how “Notorious RBG in Song” came to be. “And so, they commissioned three women composers to (each) write … one song in honor of RBG.”

“When I wrote and performed all of those songs, I found it so fascinating and so meaningful to other people that I thought there should be an entire song cycle about her influence on her world, about the actual story of her life and the individuals in it,” she said. “So I decided to ask her permission to research and come up with actual documents from her life and other people’s lives describing her influences in society.”

Using texts from RGB’s husband Martin and her father-in-law, Morris Ginsburg, personal stories and dissents from several of her cases, Michaels created songs that reflected both the wit and wisdom of RBG, and also helped to tell her story.

“She has been very gracious,” Michaels said. “It’s just been a very special part of our lives.”

Professor Chang described the Cleveland premiere on April 18 of “Notorious RBG in Song” as “... really special for us. Not only to do the premiere of this wonderful work celebrating the 25 years that … Justice Ginsburg has been on the bench, but also celebrate (the) relationship to two very interesting topics -- music and law -- and how that intersects.”

“Just like Justice Ginsburg talks about with opera and the law,” she continued. “It’s been great to mix the two.”

Michaels shared her excitement to pair with Chang during the April 18 performance, as Chang was only the fourth pianist to perform the work.

“She brings the largest piano and the most beautiful sounding piano I have ever heard,” Michaels said. “But I’m so happy to hear her very personal interpretations of really nuanced moments in the score.”

“You know as a composer, I love to hear the difference ways that people can take the map and turn it into the actual journey,” she continued. “I’m finding some very new places we can go together. It’s just delightful.”

Dean Fisher made a cameo appearance during the performance to read brief summaries of five cases in which Bader Ginsburg wrote dissents that Michaels said she felt showed the true side of RBG’s legal mind.

“One of the contributions that Justice Ginsburg makes to our legal system is when she chooses to read dissenting options from the bench,” Michaels said. “So right from the beginning of this project, I felt that there should be a musical representation of this most important aspect of her work.”

“I am very happy that I discovered and crafted a structure that would allow an announcement about what each case was about,” she added, “... whether it was constitutional law principle or a more practical issue, and then a portion of her actual dissent as she wrote them, which, of course, is sung. It’s a beautiful metaphor that Dean Fisher, of all people, is the one who’s reading the case set ups.”

A lover of opera and classical music

A lover of classical music, Ruth Bader Ginsburg instilled in her son a love of classical music at a young age that has continued his whole life.

“[Music] had a huge effect on me and it’s because there is something about music that immediately spoke to me,” Ginsburg said. “At the time the popular styles didn’t interest me at all, but something about classical music just spoke to me.”

The founder of Cedille Records, a non-profit classical record label based in Chicago, Illinois, Ginsburg said that his company mission “is to record and promote the finest classical musicians in Chicago.”

There had been a classical recording label in Chicago since the 1950s, which closed, Ginsberg said, adding that he thought he should do something about the loss.

RBG had a deep love not only for classical music, but specifically opera, and often hosted talks called “Opera and the Law.”

Recalling those talks, her daughter-in-law noted that her program is “usually opening up a topic that you might discover in opera. For instance, in ‘Carmen’ when Don Jose is supposed to arrest Carmen, but then he allows her to escape. She’ll give a little discussion (about) what that means in legal terms and then well see someone actually perform it from the opera.”

Her son said that RBG often called “Carmen” “opera’s most famous plea bargain.”

RBG’s Legacy

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. For the last 25 years, she has sat on the bench in the highest court in the Nation. She has been, many times, the voice of reason when the law seems to lack common sense. She will leave a legacy in her family as her oldest child, Jane, is a lawyer just as her parents were. Her son, James, is a successful record label producer.

But what is her law legacy? The testament of the numerous hours to which she has dedicated her life? For Ginsburg, it’s her writing.

“Her writing is so crystal clear,” he said. “She writes, rewrites and she rewrites. These dissents she’s writing and reading from the bench, these are written for the future.”

“I liken her to Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes,” he continued, “who wrote all those great dissents that later became the law. And I think that what’s going to happen to my mother’s writing and that’s why she making it as clear as possible in her writings.”

“I will continue to give voice to my dissent if, in my judgement, the Court veers in the wrong direction when important matters are at stake.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


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