On Friday, the nation lost a tried and tested warrior in the ongoing battle for civil rights and equal protection under federal law in the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. After five separate cancer diagnoses over 21 years, Ginsburg succumbed to complications with pancreatic cancer at the age of 87, missing just one oral argument in her 27 years of serving the nation’s highest court. While we celebrate her impossible resilience and the profound impact of her legacy in securing and protecting the rights of the historically disenfranchised, it feels like a perfect moment to note the origins and effortless embrace of her late-life transformation into The Notorious RBG, a name that pays homage to legendary rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
According to a 2017 interview with Charlie Rose the nickname was coined by second-year NYU Law School student, Shana Knizhnik in 2013. In the weeks following the Supreme Court’s ruling on Shelby County v. Holder, a case that questioned the constitutional basis for a key aspect of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Knizhnik posted Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion on a Tumblr page created under the nickname, borrowed and adapted from fellow Brooklyn icon, Biggie Smalls.
What began as a half-joking link took flight as a meme in subsequent years, aligning with Ginsburg’s newfound stardom. Knizhnik even released a biography of the justice under that name. And when word of her new title got back to Ginsburg, she was more than happy to keep it. In an interview with NPR from 2015, Ginsburg admitted to being quite a fan of her new nickname, handing out t-shirts with the title to friends and fans alike. Not even Knizhnik could anticipate the response. “I didn’t think about it in terms of masculinity. I was mostly thinking of the catchy nickname and how she was such a powerful force. Here you had this diminutive person, this tiny human, and nobody saw her as a badass. But when you see what she has done, over years, with such dignity and grace, it represented that,” Knizhnik tells Slate.
Many, if not most, legal figures of Ginsburg’s stature may have tried to distance themselves from a moniker shared with a rapper known for a vocal (and earned) disdain for the criminal justice system. Ginsburg, however, followed a strain of openness and compassion that’s threaded her entire career. In the interview with Rose, Ginsburg proudly claimed the two Brooklyn natives “have a lot in common,” noting their shared origins and not-so-quiet irreverence for broken systems and antiquated power dynamics.
Needless to say, Ginsburg, like Biggie, was a one-of-one. And their names will carry well beyond their runtime.
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