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What is the foundation behind the Ruth Bader Ginsburg award controversy?

Sylvester Stallone hangs a pair of pink boxing gloves on a portrait of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award in 2022, as Julie Opperman, chair of the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation, looks on.
Tasos Katopodis
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Getty Images for The Dwight D. Opperman Foundation
Sylvester Stallone hangs a pair of pink boxing gloves on a portrait of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award in 2022, as Julie Opperman, chair of the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation, looks on.

Controversy has erupted around the Dwight D. Opperman Foundation, a nonprofit with longstanding ties to the Supreme Court.

The organization was set to honor recipients such as billionaire Elon Musk, junk bond market creator Michael Milken and conservative media titan Rupert Murdoch with its "RBG Award" — named after the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It quickly backpedaled after the liberal justice's family blasted the decision.

Here's a quick guide to the controversy, and the foundation at the center of it:

What does the Opperman Foundation say?

Most notably, it changed its criteria for the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award, as it was called when it was created in 2019. Rather than highlighting women, this year's winners would recognize "trailblazing men and women," the Opperman foundation said. Its 2024 recipients were to also include TV personality Martha Stewart and actor Sylvester Stallone.

"This year we selected leaders in different fields. We honored men for the first time," foundation chair Julie Opperman wrote.

Then came the blowback, prompting the foundation to cancel plans for what was to be "an exclusive ceremony and gala at the Library of Congress" next month.

No awards will be given this year, the foundation told NPR.

"We thought RBG's teachings regarding EQUALITY should be practiced," Opperman said in a statement about the controversy. "We did not consider politics. Instead, we focused on leaders, who, in their own way, have made significant contributions to society."

What does Ginsburg's family think?

This year's selections for the RBG Award seem to have caught Ginsburg's family and supporters by surprise: the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award had been touted as a celebration of women who are role models and have a positive impact on the world. Last year's winner was Barbra Streisand.

But this year's iteration of the award erased the word "Woman." And for a week or so, it looked as if two convicted felons (Milken, who was pardoned by former President Trump, and Stewart) would have a large medal featuring the late justice draped around their neck.

After the winners were announced, Ginsburg's family acknowledged that the five had achieved "notable success" in their careers. But giving them the RBG Award "is a striking betrayal of the Justice's legacy," Ginsburg's former law clerk, Trevor Morrison, dean emeritus at the New York University School of Law, told the foundation's chair in a letter sent on behalf of the family.

What is the Opperman Foundation?

It was established by Dwight D. Opperman, a lawyer and executive in the legal publishing industry who died at age 89 in 2013. Opperman was the leader of West Publishing Company, who is credited with engineering its pivot from paper to electronic formats, eventually creating Westlaw, a widely used online research system. Westlaw was acquired by Thomson Reuters in 1996.

More than 40 years ago, Opperman also created an important award for federal judges, sponsoring the Devitt Award — which, like the RBG Award, uses a committee to select a recipient. In a sign of the award's esteem, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts selects one of the high court's justices to chair the selection panel. The award is presented at the court itself.

When Opperman died, then-Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has chaired the Devitt panel, delivered the eulogy.

Opperman was also a noted benefactor of the Library of Congress. In 2011, his wife, Julie Opperman, "donated two volumes of an extraordinarily rare 1478 edition of the Casus breves of Johannes de Turnhout (c. 1446–1492)" in his honor, the library said.

In the kerfuffle over the new RBG Awards, the Library of Congress clarified that it was only serving as a venue for now-canceled award ceremony, saying it wasn't involved with the awards themselves.

Last year, the Library of Congress announced the return of Robert Newlen. Newlen had taken a leadership role at the Opperman Foundation after retiring from his post as deputy Librarian of Congress in 2017.

In his time as the executive director and director of strategic initiatives of the foundation, the library said, Newlen "oversaw all operations of the foundation and implemented the annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Woman of Leadership Award."

Who selected the RBG Award recipients?

The foundation says the RBG Award was chaired this year by Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr., an attorney who represented Oliver North in the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987 — when he famously defended his objections on North's behalf by telling a senator, "Well, sir, I'm not a potted plant. I'm here as the lawyer. That's my job."

Sullivan's career includes numerous high-profile criminal and antitrust cases; he was recently named Lawyer of the Year by the Bar Association in Washington, D.C.

"Justice Ginsburg became an icon by bravely pursuing her own path and prevailing against the odds," Sullivan said as this year's recipients were announced. "The honorees reflect the integrity and achievement that defined Justice Ginsburg's career and legend."

In its first year, the foundation said the awards chair oversaw a six-person voting council. Last year's award panel had more than a dozen members — including at least two people with ties to this year's honorees: Jennifer Flavin Stallone (wife of Sylvester) and Martha Stewart herself.

As it announced the honorees for 2024, the foundation made no mention of the controversies clouding the five.

Who else has won the RBG Award?

Agnes Gund, the philanthropist and justice reform activist, won the first edition of the award, which she accepted from Ginsburg herself at a ceremony in early 2020. Ginsburg died later that year.

Streisand was honored in 2023, receiving the award from Ginsburg's former colleague, Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The RBG Award's two other recipients are Queen Elizabeth II, who was honored in 2021, and fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, who won in 2022.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.