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RBG's family condemns the selection of recipients of an award named in her honor

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020, months after approving an award in her name to honor women who have made a positive difference.  Ginsburg is pictured speaking at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass, on Oct. 3, 2019.
Jessica Hill
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in 2020, months after approving an award in her name to honor women who have made a positive difference. Ginsburg is pictured speaking at Amherst College in Amherst, Mass, on Oct. 3, 2019.

An award named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg has gone to a slate of accomplished women since it was launched four years ago to honor the legacy of the late Supreme Court justice known for championing women's rights and liberal causes. This year is different.

Next month, the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation will present the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Leadership Award to four men and Martha Stewart. Among the winners are two convicted felons, the founder of right-wing Fox News, and Elon Musk.

Stewart, Musk, Rupert Murdoch, Michael Milken and Sylvester Stallone are the five "iconic" and "exceptional" recipients of the 2024 RBG Leadership Award, the organizing foundation said in a news release on Wednesday.

Ginsburg's family is blasting the foundation's selection of this year's recipients, saying the decision is an "affront" to the memory of the late justice and her values.

"This year, the Opperman Foundation has strayed far from the original mission of the award and from what Justice Ginsburg stood for," Jane Ginsburg, daughter of the Supreme Court justice, said in a statement.

The award was conceived in 2019 to recognize "an extraordinary woman who has exercised a positive and notable influence on society and served as an exemplary role model in both principles and practice." Past recipients have included Queen Elizabeth II and Barbra Streisand.

This year, "woman" has been dropped from the name of the award, and the criteria has expanded to include "trailblazing men and women" who "have demonstrated extraordinary accomplishments in their chosen fields," the Opperman Foundation said.

"Justice Ginsburg fought not only for women but for everyone," the foundation's chair, Julie Opperman, said in the news release. "Going forward, to embrace the fullness of Justice Ginsburg's legacy, we honor both women and men who have changed the world by doing what they do best."

The Ginsburg family says it was not informed of the changes in name or criteria for the award. It is pressing Opperman to remove Justice Ginsburg's name from the award "unless the original award criteria, as accepted by Justice Ginsburg, are restored," as Trevor Morrison, Ginsburg's former law clerk, wrote in a letter to the foundation's chair that spoke on behalf of the Ginsburg family.

Until then, Morrison said, the justice's family wishes "to make clear that they do not support using their mother's name to celebrate this slate of awardees, and that the Justice's family has no affiliation with and does not endorse this award."

"Each of this year's awardees has achieved notable success in their careers, and each may well deserve accolades of one form or another. But the decision to bestow upon them the particular honor of the RBG Award is a striking betrayal of the Justice's legacy," he wrote.

Most of the awardees' track records bear controversies and scandals rivaling their achievements.

Milken, an investment banker famous for creating the junk bond market, was arrested in the late '80s for securities fraud. After he was released from prison, he built a reputation on his philanthropy. President Trump pardoned Milken in 2020.

Stewart, who built a multimillion-dollar empire as a homemaking maven, served prison time for lying to investigators about a fishy stock sale.

Murdoch, the retired mogul who leveraged his media outlets to embrace right-wing leaders and views, allowed Fox News stars to promote baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Musk, the billionaire owner of SpaceX, has been accused of antisemitism and, since taking over Twitter — now known as X — reportedlyallowed pro-Nazi content to proliferate on the platform, prompting companies to pull ad revenue.

Actor Stallone of Rocky fame has faced multiple allegations of sexual assault, all of which he denies and for which he's never been charged.

Stallone escorted Justice Ginsburg to the stage — as the franchise's theme song played — during the award's inaugural ceremony in 2020, as Opperman noted at the time.

At that ceremony, Justice Ginsburg stated her hopes for the award: "By honoring brave, strong and resilient women, we will prompt women and men in ever-increasing numbers to help repair tears in their local communities, the nation and the world, so that the long arc of the moral universe will continue to bend toward justice."

In an email to NPR, RBG's son singled out two recipients in his condemnation of the new criteria.

"... that is quite a step down from the original criteria and, apparently, means people like Murdoch and Musk who are antithetical to everything Mom stood for, qualify," Jim Ginsburg said. "Speaking only for myself, I would say that those who foment hatred and undermine democracy do not stand for the ideals of equality, respect, and engagement my mother strived to advance."

The Opperman Foundation has not yet responded to NPR's request for comment.

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Emma Bowman
[Copyright 2024 NPR]