Madame Justice

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets ready for a new term at the highest court in the land by reading through the cases she will hear.

"In the brief boxes, are the brief of the petitioner," Justice Ginsburg says. "That's colored blue. The respondent is colored red. The government is always gray."

Court officials tell "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace it's been at least 15 years — probably longer — since a sitting justice has invited a camera crew into his or her chambers.

"The Court receives over 8,000 applications for review each year. And from that large group we select less than 100," Ginsburg says.

Justice Ginsburg invited CBS News to the court because three years ago, Mike Wallace was asked to narrate a film celebrating her 70th birthday. But Justice Ginsburg was doing more than returning a favor when she agreed to sit down with him.

"This court is a gem," she says. "I don't know of any court like it in the world that has the respect that this court has, and I think that the court is not always understood by the U.S. public."

And that troubles her.

"There are nine Justices. The particular nine who serve at any given time are not necessarily the best lawyers in America. But we all serve an institution that we revere. We all revere this court. And what we want to do is make sure we don't do any damage to it. And that means none of us can project our will singly on the others. We are a collegial bench," Ginsburg says.

Wallace asks if anyone ever raises his or her voice in Supreme Court conferences.

"I have never heard a raised voice in the conference," Ginsburg says. "I've never heard an unkind word. Now you will occasionally see an unkind word in an opinion. We write differently. So some of my colleagues write rather — we call them — 'spicy opinions,' which will say for example: 'This Court is profoundly misguided,' or 'the opinion of my colleagues is not to be taken seriously.'"

The "spiciest" justice is conservative Antonin Scalia.

"Why are you and he such good friends?" Wallace asks. "He's conservative, you're liberal. He's bombastic, you're not. He is noisy, you're not."

"I would change all of your characterizations of my friend," Ginsburg says. "I would say he's provocative, stimulating, terribly smart and wonderfully funny."

In Justice Ginsburg's office is a picture of them riding together on an elephant in India. But why is she riding behind Scalia?

"It had to do with the distribution of weight," Ginsburg says. "Mike, you have asked the same question that my feminist friends ask, 'Why are you sitting in the back of the elephant?'"

The justice has a lot of feminist friends. As a young attorney, she headed the Women's Rights Project at the liberal American Civil Liberties Union. She argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. In 1980, Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C.

It was Bill Clinton who appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1993. At her confirmation hearing, she declined to give her personal opinion of abortion — even though she once said abortion "was central to a woman's life, her dignity."

With a partial-birth abortion case before the court this year, she would not talk with us about the subject.

"If you were to ask me: 'Oh, how are you going to vote in such and such a case?' I said: 'I can't possibly tell you. As a judge I don't know. I can't know. I shouldn't know without the education I'm going to get from the opinions below, the briefs, from the oral argument, from the conference with my colleagues,'" Ginsburg explains.

Also out of bounds: questions about the separation of church and state and the 2000 court decision which led to George W. Bush winning the presidency.

"Because questions are going to come before this Court on those turbulent issues," she says.

But she was willing to talk about an issue which has recently dominated Washington politics.

"The court decided against an administration plan to establish military tribunals to try a suspected al Qaeda member," Wallace says. "The administration asked that the court not second guess it in the middle of a war. And you did."

"The Court did not decide whether the plan was a good plan or a bad plan," Ginsburg says. "The question before us was, 'Good, bad or indifferent, did the President have the authority to do this on his own?' And the decision was that this is a shared responsibility.

"It's not that one branch of government can seize power all by itself. The lawmakers, the people's elected representatives, have to pass on such a program. The court also said that we are bound by certain international treaties. The most important one being we treat people with humanity," Ginsburg says.

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    Scott Conroy is a National Political Reporter for RealClearPolitics and a contributor for CBS News.