Queen of the court reigns supreme

| Charlotte Plantive 9 Jul 2019

A slight figure steps slowly onstage. The audience goes wild, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg, matriarch of the United States Supreme Court, calls for quiet. This is no time for celebration. She is here to judge Electra, the ancient Greek tragic heroine.

"I'm so excited," says one audience member as she sees the progressive pop culture icon, affectionately nicknamed "the notorious RBG," enter the scene.

"Go, RBG!" yells someone else in support of Ginsburg, an 86-year-old judge, who underwent lung surgery in December.

With a gesture, she silences the crowd. Her voice, reedy but clear, can be heard in the room at Washington's Sidney Harman Hall: "The Supreme Court of Athens will hear the case of Orestes v Electra."

Ginsberg, a celebrity after being the subject of a hugely successful documentary and a Hollywood movie, enjoys theatrics herself as a member of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Bard Association.

The group offers leading legal figures the chance to tread the boards twice a year in its Mock Trial series, in which they judge characters from classical tragedies.

In this trial, Aeschylus' tragic heroine, Electra, has been ordered to pay damages to her brother Orestes for allegedly convincing him to murder their mother Clytemnestra, causing the young king to lose both his reputation and his mind.

Electra insists her brother acted under orders from the Oracle of Delphi. She appealed her case to the Supreme Court of Athens, asking it to overturn her sentence.

"King Orestes is not happy," says Electra's lawyer, real-life Washington legal eagle Beth Brinkmann. "He wants to make Athens great again," which has not worked, and so he turned against his sister and tried to "lock her up," argues Brinkmann.

It is the first in a series of references to President Donald Trump and his infamous slogan "Make America Great Again."

Orestes' lawyer, Elizabeth Wydra, has a similarly wry line of argument.

"My client is the victim of a witch hunt," she says, in another Trump reference - this time evoking his favored phrase to denigrate the probe into Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The zingers hit their targets, and the audience laughs uproariously.

Washington is an overwhelmingly Democratic city, and Trump criticisms are common - both open and anonymous.

But Ginsburg, a figurehead of the left due to her defense of women's rights and green causes, can't afford to be so liberal in critiques. She already came under fire in 2016 for calling Trump a "faker."

Associate Supreme Court judge Stephen Breyer notes with irony the many dramas the house of Atreus - Electra and Orestes' ancestor - has seen unfold: murders, infanticides and patricides committed over multiple generations."This is a seriously dysfunctional family," he says, grinning.

The justices "take great pleasure" in the trials, says Abbe Lowell, a lawyer and president of the Bard Association. "They come prepared. They come with jokes."

The association's mock trials started in 1994. Originally it was only once a year but in recent times it's become biannual.

"We always have at least one Supreme Court Justice, sometimes two or three," says Lowell. Ginsburg, a regular, has also judged cases inspired by Macbeth, Camelot and Don Quixote.

The legal community is supportive of the theater group, appreciating the themes and the texts, says Lowell. "They find it the funniest thing they do in Washington."

How do they reconcile the evening's tone with their job, which demands objectivity? It's common to poke fun at "whatever the circumstances are going on at the time of the trial," explains Lowell. "But it's done in a good-natured, balanced way. People know where to draw the line."

Orestes loses his case: the audience and the five judges, headed by RBG, decided unanimously in his sister's favor.

"We have agreed to reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals," Ginsberg announces. "What must be stopped is the cycle of violence. We have to find a way for people to come together."


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