Memo shows Ginsburg espousing cautious role


WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her first effort to win favor with the Senate, has sketched out a cautious approach to using judicial powers, saying courts should remain skeptical about their ability to remedy society's wrongs.

"Important policy questions" should be left to elected officials, with courts "filling large gaps" when laws dealing with new subjects are written in general terms, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee in documents released by that panel yesterday.

Her comments came in answers on an extensive questionnaire that the committee requires every Supreme Court nominee to fill out to aid its review.

She also revealed that she and her husband are worth more than $6 million, which apparently would make her the wealthiest member of the court.

Most of the questions on the Senate form are factual, but a few -- such as one calling for a reaction to the idea of "judicial activism" -- give a nominee a chance to say things that senators may want to read as they begin to ponder how to vote on final approval.

Many of her comments seem like those by past nominees that have satisfied the moderate and conservative members who control most of the Judiciary Committee's major actions. The committee is scheduled to hold hearings on Judge Ginsburg's nomination beginning July 20, when her views are sure to be explored more fully.

Judge Ginsburg generally has followed a cautious path in her 13 years as a federal appeals court judge, and from time to time has joined in public criticism of the Supreme Court for using its powers more broadly than she has thought necessary -- as, for example, when it created a constitutional right to abortion.

In the questionnaire, she aimed some of her most negative comments at the role of judges as detailed monitors of conditions in schools facing desegregation, in prisons, and in mental hospitals, after those institutions have been found to be violating someone's rights.

She said judges generally take on those tasks "with reluctance and misgivings," and find the "oversight chores" to be "uncongenial and unwelcome."

In discussing the need she saw for judges to leave key policy questions to legislators and other elected officials, Judge Ginsburg said those other branches of government should speak with greater clarity and should set more definite standards so that judges may do any follow-up chores more efficiently.

On how she feels judging is best done, the nominee said that decisions must not be made to achieve desired results, but rather to be faithful to the laws and the Constitution. When a decision is "legally right," she argued, a judge should not flinch from it because the result may be unpopular.

"The federal judiciary," she summed up, "must . . . retain clear vision of its place in the constitutional scheme and appropriate skepticism concerning the remedial competence of jurists."

Judge Ginsburg's replies in general contrasted sharply with the approach she took as a civil rights lawyer before becoming a judge. Then, she regularly asked federal courts to use their authority in new and expansive ways, especially to create new legal rights for women. The document also provides details that illustrate the whirlwind procedure that made her President Clinton's first nominee to the highest court. Judge Ginsburg spelled out the steps that the White House had taken in first contacting her -- on a Friday morning -- and then settling on her as the nominee two nights later.

Judge Ginsburg revealed that she and her tax lawyer-professor husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, have a net worth estimated at $6,195,770. The couple's assets included $2,580,300 in non-stock investments, $2,075,000 in retirement accounts, $1,300,000 worth of real estate (their apartment at the Watergate complex), and $100,000 in U.S. Treasury notes.

They listed only $60,000 in debts.

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