One of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's great fears is that the federal judiciary will start to be seen as just another political branch of government divided along partisan lines like Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court justice said Tuesday.
Ginsburg is skipping President Donald Trump's first State of the Union address, instead speaking at Roger Williams University School of Law in Rhode Island.
She did not discuss the Republican president, but bemoaned the partisan atmosphere in Washington, in particular the divisive process for confirming judges. She pointed to fights over the last four justices appointed to the court: Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch.
"Four fine justices who should have gotten overwhelming support but got many negative votes," she said. "I think it will take great leaders on both sides of the aisle to say 'Let's stop this nonsense and start working for our country the way we should.'"
"We have a great federal judiciary, and I hope we can keep it,'' she added.
She also expressed hope that the country eventually will get over the current period of intense partisanship, comparing it to the 1950s, when McCarthyism and the Red Scare led the country to stray "from its most fundamental values."
"That time has passed. This time will too. We have something so wonderful in this nation," she said. "That Democracy exists. It would be tragic to lose it. And I think good people, no matter whether Democrat or Republican, appreciate that.''
Ginsburg said some in Congress are working across the aisle, singling out three female senators for praise: Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Maine Republican Susan Collins.
The 84-year-old justice said she feels fine, eliciting cheers and applause from the audience.
She attributed her health to her personal trainer, who published a book on the justice's workout last year. A new documentary about her, titled "RBG," which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, shows Ginsburg doing exercises, including pushups and throwing a weighted ball.
"Many reporters want to know about the routine. Most of them fail miserably," she told the crowd Tuesday, laughing and shaking her head.
She dodged a question asking her thoughts about how "Saturday Night Live" depicts her lifting weights, popping vitamins and determined to outlast the Trump administration. She pointed out that the actress who portrays her, Kate McKinnon, has the same name as lawyer Catherine MacKinnon, who pioneered sexual harassment law.
While avoiding talk of Trump, Ginsburg did mention former President Jimmy Carter, who appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980, 13 years before her appointment to the Supreme Court. Carter, a Democrat, served only one term and never made a Supreme Court appointment. But he "changed the complexion" of the judiciary by appointing women and minorities to the bench at a time when judges were white and male, she said.
"No president ever returned to the not-so-good-old days," Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg is one of five Supreme Court justices expected to skip Trump's speech. The others are Justices Alito, Sotomayor, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.