WASHINGTON — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is defending a rare Supreme Court decision that put her at odds with women's rights groups.
Ginsburg said the court's unanimous ruling in June that struck down the 35-foot, protest-free zone on sidewalks outside Massachusetts abortions clinics was a good decision that balanced the rights of access to the clinics and speech of abortion opponents.
"It was not a compromise decision but a good decision to say yes, you can regulate, but it is speech so you have to be careful not to go too far," Ginsburg said Thursday in an interview with The Associated Press in her wood-paneled office at the court.
While all the justices said the 35-foot buffer zone violated the Constitution, Ginsburg joined the court's other liberal justices and Chief Justice John Roberts to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other, more conservative justices wanted.
Massachusetts officials said the 35-foot buffer zone was needed to keep patients and staff safe, and women's groups said the high court decision would put people in danger.
"This decision emboldens more extreme violence, harassment, and intimidation of women and health care providers in the name of free speech," Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal said.
But Ginsburg, the founding director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project, said the state's court case in defense of the law was weak. "If you looked at what they had in evidence, it was pitiful compared to some in-your-face demonstrations," she said.
She noted the state had replaced the stricken law with what she called a more modest effort. Signed by Gov. Deval Patrick on Wednesday, the new law gives police increased authority to break up crowds gathering around abortion clinic entrances.
The buffer zone case was one of two rulings Ginsburg addressed that affect the rights of women.
She and her liberal colleagues dissented from a decision that allows for-profit corporations, such as the Hobby Lobby chain of crafts stores, to assert religious objections to paying for contraceptives for women, as required under President Barack Obama's health care law.
"I have no doubt that if the court had been composed of nine women the result would have been different in Hobby Lobby," Ginsburg said.
She said, though, that she hasn't lost hope for the five men on the court who formed the majority in favor of Hobby Lobby. "As long as one lives, one can learn," she said.
Looking ahead, Ginsburg predicted the court will not duck the issue of same-sex marriage the next time a case comes to it, and could decide the issue by June 2016, and possibly a year earlier.
Appeals courts in Denver and Richmond, Virginia, have upheld lower court rulings striking down state constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Any of those cases could make their way to the Supreme Court in the coming months.
Attitudes have changed swiftly in favor of same-sex marriage, which is now legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia, Ginsburg said.
She predicted that the justices would not delay ruling as they did on interracial marriage bans, which were not formally struck down until 1967.
"I think the court will not do what they did in the old days when they continually ducked the issue of miscegenation," Ginsburg said. "If a case is properly before the court, they will take it."
The comment marked something of a change for Ginsburg, who previously had been seen as wary about the court getting too far ahead of the country in ruling on major social issues.
The justices decided two same-sex marriage cases in June 2013. Ginsburg was in the majority to strike down part of the anti-gay marriage Defense of Marriage Act. She also was part of a court majority that declined to rule on the merits of California's Proposition 8 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. The effect of the decision was to allow same-sex unions to resume in California, but the high court said nothing about the right to marry.
Ginsburg has served on the court since 1993. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton. She said feels she can still do the job well and rebuffed suggestions that she should retire now so Obama can appoint a like-minded successor.
"Right now, I don't see any sign that I'm less able to do the job," she said.
Associated Press writer Sam Hananel contributed to this report.