Justice Ginsburg talks about career
QUEENSTOWN — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke Wednesday night, May 24, at the Wye Fellows speaker series at the Aspen Institute in Queenstown.
About 200 people attended the talk, which was for invited guests only, and enjoyed listening to Ginsburg speak about her distinguished career in law and answer questions. Ginsburg’s latest book, “My Own Words,” also was on sale at the event.
Ginsburg and event moderator Elliott Gerson, Aspen’s executive vice president, were introduced by Merly Chertoff, director of the institute’s Justice and Society Program. Chertoff described Ginsburg as “an internet sensation” and “the Thurgood Marshall of women’s issues.”
“You may feel you’re in the presence of a rock star!” she said.
Or perhaps a movie star? It was announced a movie is being made next year in which Ginsburg will be portrayed by actress Natalie Portman.
Ginsburg was born March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to a working-class family. Her mother, Celia Bader, who worked in a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s college education, was of particular influence, teaching her daughter the value of independence and a good education.
A famous Ginsburg quote highlighted this: “My mother told me to be a lady. And to her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”
Sadly, her mother died after a long struggle with cancer the day before the future Supreme Court justice graduated from high school.
“My mother was a powerful influence. She made me toe the line. If I didn’t have a perfect report card, she showed her disappointment,” Ginsburg said.
She went on to graduate first in her class at Cornell University in 1954 with a bachelor’s degree in government. In the mid-1950s, she went to Harvard Law School as one of nine females in a class of 500 law students where women were chided by the law dean for taking the places of qualified males. Eventually, Ginsburg became the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
She taught at Rutgers University Law School and then at Columbia, where she became the school’s first female tenured professor.
During the 1970s, she became director of the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, for which she argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia.
She credited Carter for being the first president to open the door to federal judgeships for women.
“President Carter appointed 25 women to be federal judges, 11 of those to the U.S. Courts of Appeals, which I was one of those,” Ginsburg said.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton selected her to be on the U.S. Supreme Court, and she was confirmed by a vote of 96-3 in the U.S. Senate.
“Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah was one of my biggest supporters during the confirmation hearings, to many people’s surprise,” she said.
She is considered part of the Supreme Court’s moderate-liberal bloc, presenting a strong voice in favor of gender equality, the rights of workers and the separation of church and state.
One of the first questions asked of her by moderator Gerson was about how well she worked with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia and Ginsburg often disagreed on many court decisions.
“He made me laugh, and we both loved opera,” Ginsburg said. “He told me frequently, ‘You’d be more persuasive if you’d just tone your arguments down.’ Of course, that would never happen!”
As for working with the other justices, Ginsburg said, “We are all one in our reverence for the Constitution.”
She said someone once asked her, “How can you work with Justice Scalia since he is your enemy/opponent?” She replied, “No, he’s my friend.”
One of her famous quotes again reaffirms her belief that the Supreme Court justices all revere the Constitution and simply have different interpretations: “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Ginsburg shared her opinion that historically, “the worst decision the court ever made was in the Dred Scott case.” She did not go into detail about why, but said in explaining her thinking about when she will dissent from a decision by the court, “I do it when I feel the court is egregiously wrong in its decision. I feel a dissenting opinion is made for the future of that issue.”
After about 40 minutes of questions from moderator Gerson, he turned to a Q&A session from those in attendance. Only seven people, one of those an unidentified child who appeared to be under 10 years old, stood to ask questions. The child’s question was, “What case(s) are the most difficult?” Ginsburg replied, “Cases involving the death penalty.”
One of those from the audience asked if the justices ever lobby each other on voting on issues being decided by the court. Ginsburg said, “No, there is never any horse trading or lobbying between the justices. We all vote based on our opinions.”
Asked if she was concerned about the balance of justices (conser vative and liberal) “turning back the clock on certain issues like abortion,” Ginsburg replied, “We will never go back to the time before Roe v. Wade.”
“Places where restrictions have been attempted, like in Texas, clearly show who will be punished with such restrictions. The poor, the people who can least afford services needed. The restrictions are against poor women,” she said. Again, she added one of her famous quotes: “The emphasis must be not on the right to abortion but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.”
Asked about the newest Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, Ginsburg said, “The first week on the job, we had 13 cases before us. I can tell you he was prepared. I think he’s an excellent justice.”
Ginsburg has had two battles with cancer, the first in 1999 with colon rectal cancer. In 2009, pancreatic cancer was discovered early. She recovered from the surgery to cure her of it.
Currently the eldest member of the U.S. Supreme Court, she still works out at a gym located inside the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
From left, Aspen Institute Executive Vice President Elliot Gerson moderates a discussion Wednesday evening, May 24, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the institute’s Queenstown campus.
The front cover of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s latest book “My Onw Words,” was on sale Wednesday evening, May 24, at the Aspen Institute in Queenstown, where Ginsburg spoke. The copies sold there were personally autographed.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG