A conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at HLS
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A conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg at HLS

October 11, 2019


[APPLAUSE] JUSTICE GINSBURG:
Thank you, for that. Thank you. Oh, please, sit down. MARTHA MINOW: Hello, everybody. We’re a little bit late, because
Justice Ginsburg actually has a day job. And she actually got a call and
needed to be involved in it. But we are thrilled beyond
words that you are here. I don’t need to really spend
much time on the introduction. I don’t think I will. I will say this, that there are
very few people who have ever been appointed to the United
States Supreme Court whose career beforehand was as
distinguished the career afterwards. And that is true of Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I also just want
to say, personally, that I had the great
privilege of getting to know Justice
Ginsburg a little bit when she first joined the Court
of Appeals in Washington, DC. And a few years
later, I got a call from Justice Ginsburg saying,
are you a member of the ABA? And I said, yeah. She said, well, then I’m going
to support you for something. And she has done
that for me, as she has done for so many others. So a whole other story
about Justice Ginsburg is her mentorship,
particularly of women. And for that, I am very deeply
and personally grateful. On the wall of her
chambers is a sign that says, “Justice,
justice thou shalt pursue,” the Old Testament words. And we’re going to
pursue, actually, a little bit of
your autobiography. But some justice
might appear, as well. Justice Ginsburg, you grew
up in Brooklyn, New York. And it was a community of
poor working class people. Is it true that
you were involved in in a twirling squad? What are your memories
of your time there? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes,
Martha, it is true that I was a twirler at
James Madison High School. And what that meant
is that we had to perform at every
football game. MARTHA MINOW: Oh, wow. JUSTICE GINSBURG: I
learned to hate football as a result of freezing. [LAUGHTER] But I marched in a few
parades in the city. And that was fun. MARTHA MINOW: Some
people remembered you as a very popular
student, and also as a very brilliant student. And it’s true, I
think, isn’t it, that your mother gave you
some advice, who you sadly lost before your graduation. She said something like,
you should be a lady, but you should also
be independent. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. MARTHA MINOW: Is that right? And so, was the idea of
having a career something you had in your mind when
you went off to college? JUSTICE GINSBURG:
Yes, I was going to be high school
history teacher. I had no aspirations
then to be a lawyer, because women couldn’t make
a living practicing law. But teaching was a field
where women were accepted, and there was a
nice, steady income. So yes, I was going
to be independent. And what my mother meant by “be
a lady,” was not to be haughty. But a lady doesn’t get
disturbed by things that maybe are off-putting. She reacts calmly,
without anger. And she has nothing to
do with an emotion that’s terribly draining
on your time and you can’t do anything about,
and that’s jealousy. So that’s what being a lady
meant, being calm and not letting things
affect you adversely. MARTHA MINOW: This might
be a useful quality in your current job. [LAUGHTER] JUSTICE GINSBURG: No,
but better than that is the advice my mother-in-law
gave me the day I was married. I was married in
my husband’s home. And just before the ceremony,
my mother-in-law sat me down and she said, I have
some advice for you about what makes
a happy marriage. And she said, dear, sometimes
it helps to be a little deaf. [LAUGHTER] And with that, she handed me
a package of Mack’s Earplugs that I use to this day. [LAUGHTER] It turned out to be
wonderful advice not simply for dealing with my spouse,
but with my colleagues on law faculties. And now, on the
court, as well, it helps sometimes to
be a little deaf. MARTHA MINOW: I am
going to copy that. [LAUGHS] You went to Cornell
University with a scholarship. What were the highlights there? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Well, Cornell
was the place for girls to go, because there were four
men to every woman. So if you were the
mother of a daughter, that’s where you sent your
daughter, if you could, because she could find her
man within the four years. And we never questioned
that, you know? The other thing
about life at Cornell was that the girls
had to sign in. So we had to be back in the
dorm by 10:00 on weekdays, 12:00 on Friday, and
1:00 on Saturday. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. JUSTICE GINSBURG: And if
you didn’t get back in time, you were literally
locked out on the street. MARTHA MINOW: That didn’t
happen to you, did it? JUSTICE GINSBURG: It did once. [LAUGHTER] MARTHA MINOW: You
did happen to meet amazing individual,
Marty Ginsburg. It was a blind date? Is that correct? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Well,
not exactly on his side. [LAUGHTER] Martha, this is
how it came about. Marty had a girlfriend
at Smith, and I had a boyfriend at
Columbia Law School. Friends of ours thought
it would be nice– and Ithaca can get pretty
cold during the week– if we spent time
together, go to movies. And besides, my friend was
dating Marty’s roommate. And Marty had a gray Chevrolet. So that’s how it started. [LAUGHTER] The remarkable thing was that
Marty cared that I had a brain. You know, most guys
really were not interested in whether
a girl could think. So that was a whole new and
wonderful, wonderful thing for me. And we were best
friends for a full year, before we were more than that. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. Then he had the idea of
going to Harvard Law School. And you were still at Cornell. And then he was drafted. And that’s pretty complicated. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Well,
he wasn’t exactly drafted. He was called. He was in the reserve. MARTHA MINOW: In
the reserve, I see. Called up. JUSTICE GINSBURG: And that
came about– at Cornell, the first two years– I don’t
know what they call it these days– but it was ROTC,
Reserve Officers– MARTHA MINOW: Still. Mm-hm. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So the first
two years were compulsory. Then, in the third
year, it was elective. And when Marty was asked did
he want to go to Senior ROTC, he wrote, hell no. And then the Korean War. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. Of course. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So
all things considered, it was better to go
in as an officer. MARTHA MINOW: Sure. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So
he had to get back in. Anyway, he was taken out at
the end of his first year in law school. Oh, I should mention
something about this place. My idea was that Marty and I
would be in the same class. So I would leave Cornell at
the end of my junior year, and– no, I would transfer
to the law school. Yeah. I would take my fourth year of
college at Cornell Law School, and then come here
and join Marty in his second year of class. When I asked the powers that be
could I do that, and they said, it’s fine, if you want to take
the first year of law school at Cornell. But we will give you
no credit for it. So the idea of two
first year law schools was not very appealing. Instead, I had the best
year I ever had in college. I took only art
and music courses. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. Wow. That does sound
pretty spectacular. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Mm-hm. MARTHA MINOW: You did enroll
in the law school here. It was unusual. There were not very many
women going to law school. There were nine in your
class, is that right? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. MARTHA MINOW: And the
Harvard Law School was not particularly
welcoming to women. Is that right? These are leading questions. [LAUGHTER] JUSTICE GINSBURG:
Well, one example of not being
particularly welcoming. I come from Cornell
where the girls had to live in dormitories. The excuse for a
four-to-one ratio was the girls have to
live in dormitories, the boys can find
places in college town. I get to the Harvard
Law School, and there’s no room in the
dorm for the girls. The girls have to find a place. Of course, it didn’t affect
me because, by that time, I was married and had a child. But that was Harvard’s attitude,
the women, we will take them, but they have to find
housing for themselves. MARTHA MINOW: Well,
you did excel here, despite the atmosphere. You earned a position
on the Law Review. Is Law Review good training? Was it worth doing? JUSTICE GINSBURG: I think I
learned more from my classmates on the Law Review. Unlike some of my classmates,
I did go to class. [LAUGHTER] But that was a great experience. MARTHA MINOW: Mm-hm. Do you read law reviews now? It’s OK, you won’t
hurt our feelings. JUSTICE GINSBURG: I don’t
read Law Reviews from cover to cover. I do read occasional articles. MARTHA MINOW: You’ve have
made some people very happy just now. That’s wonderful. JUSTICE GINSBURG: I do read
the Supreme Court note. MARTHA MINOW: The issue
of review of the court? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yeah. MARTHA MINOW: Uh-huh. You did attend school while
you were married and a mother. And also, Marty became ill. And you attended class for him? Did you take notes for him? JUSTICE GINSBURG: No. People have said I
attended his classes. I didn’t. I had note-takers. These were long
before computers. So classmates would
put carbon paper, and I would get the notes. And that’s– that was Marty’s
third year, my second– why I have such genuine
affection for this place, because our classmates,
both his class– and this was supposed to be
a fiercely competitive place. The help that we got
from our friends here, I will remember all
the days of my life. One of them knew that I had
quite a lot on my hands, so he had his girlfriend
type the notes. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Marty
had the best teachers. He had tutorials, first at the
hospital, and then at home. He attended two weeks
of the spring semester. And he got the best
grades that he ever got, because he was
taught by his classmates. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. Wow. Then we come to the part of the
story that I’ve heard you tell. And it’s fine to tell it. Marty recovered
wonderfully, and graduated, and took a job in New York. And you came to the Dean
of the Harvard Law School with a proposition. JUSTICE GINSBURG: I said, if
I successfully complete my law school at Columbia, will
I have a Harvard degree? And the answer was,
absolutely, no. You have to stay the third year. And then I had, I thought,
the perfect rebuttal argument. There was Mrs. Isselbacher,
who had transferred from Penn– she’d gone to Penn for her
first year– transferred to Harvard for her
second and third year. The first year is supposed to
be, by far, the most important. I had year one and two. She would have
year two and three. So I thought, it was– MARTHA MINOW: Comparable. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yeah. MARTHA MINOW: Yes? But, no. [LAUGHTER] JUSTICE GINSBURG: No. MARTHA MINOW: So Dean
Griswold’s decision led you to transfer to
Columbia Law School, where you promptly made Law Review
and became the top of the class. And deans ever since
have said, could you please accept a degree from
the Harvard Law School? And your answer, I
think, has been, no, until you received an
honorary Doctorate of Laws in 2011, in the good
company Placido Domingo. How would you assess
your relationship, then, with the Harvard Law School? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Having
a Harvard Law School degree, which your predecessor
offered me every year, you can’t rewrite history. That’s the way it was. And one thing that Marty said
when Elena would call and say, we would love you to
have a Harvard– he said, hold out for an honorary degree. Which I got a year
and a half ago. So. MARTHA MINOW: So
that was worth it. JUSTICE GINSBURG: But
the hardest thing for me was going to Columbia,
wondering whether I would end up with three years of law school
and no degree from any school. So I never asked the question. I was glad that
Colombia accepted me as a third year student. And then, I received a degree
from Columbia Law School. And I got this credential that,
when I go abroad– at least, it used to be– that
this was spectacular, that this is a woman who
was on the Harvard Law Review and the
Columbia Law Review. They didn’t understand that
these were student journals. MARTHA MINOW: It’s
still very impressive. But it was– JUSTICE GINSBURG: Oh. MARTHA MINOW: Yes? JUSTICE GINSBURG:
This is– I’m sorry, but there is an emergency,
so Martha, I’ll be back. MARTHA MINOW: Oh, please. Yes. Of course. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
I think we won’t have another interruption. I’m not 100% sure,
but I think so. MARTHA MINOW: Does
this happen often? JUSTICE GINSBURG:
It happens regularly in death cases, when we treat
them like a firing squad. All of us have to vote
on the final petition. So sometimes, wherever
we are in the world. But this one is a
case from my circuit. Each of us is responsible
for a circuit. Mine is the Second Circuit. So if any emergency
applications come up from the Second Circuit, then I
will be the justice to respond. MARTHA MINOW: The wonders
of modern technology. It is, unfortunately,
the fact that, when you graduated
from law school, it wasn’t easy
for you get a job. Professor Al Sacks here
recommended you for a clerkship for justice Felix Frankfurter,
who did not interview you. And no law firm
offered you a job. A few years ago,
you told an audience that, if a law firm
had offered you a job, today you might be a
retired law firm partner. So that’s a classic making
lemonade out of lemons. So what did you do? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Well, I had a
wonderful teacher at Columbia, Gerald Gunther, who
later went to Stanford. And he was in charge
of getting clerkships for Columbia students. He took me on as a
very special case. He called every Judge on the
Second Circuit, every Judge in the Eastern District
and Southern district. There was one,
Judge Palmieri, who always took his
clerks from Columbia. He was a Columbia graduate of
the college and the law school. Judge Palmieri hesitated. He said, “but she
has a young child. And sometimes, my clerks have
to come in on a weekend.” So this, I didn’t find
until years later. But Jerry said he offered
Judge Palmieri this choice. Give her a chance. And if she doesn’t
work out, there’s a young man in her class who
is going to a downtown firm and will take over. MARTHA MINOW: My goodness. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So
that was the carrot. And then the stick was, if
you don’t give her a chance, I will never recommend another
Columbia student to you. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So with
that, I got my clerkship. MARTHA MINOW: Wow. That’s amazing. JUSTICE GINSBURG: And
with the law firms, it was– first of all, this
was pre-Title VII days. So many of the firms that
interviewed at Columbia had sign-up sheets, and
they would say, men only. It was hard enough to get
a job if you were a woman. But if you were a mother,
then it was impossible. MARTHA MINOW: Right. JUSTICE GINSBURG: But once I
had the clerkship with Palmieri and he was able to tell
people, even on a Sunday, if I need her,
she’s here, then I could get a job with a law firm. And to my great good
fortune, I didn’t. Instead, I went off to
do this project in Sweden for two years. MARTHA MINOW: It is
remarkable, because you did have, at that point,
several offers, right? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. MARTHA MINOW: But
you went to work on international procedure,
and you learned Swedish. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yeah. Justice O’Connor
tells the same story. She graduated a few years before
I did at the top of her class. And there was no offer,
so she volunteered to work for a county attorney
for four months with no pay. And the understanding was
that, if she did a good job, then they would put
her on the payroll. MARTHA MINOW: Well, your project
on international procedure, of course, is very meaningful
to me, as a procedure teacher. Were you thinking, then, you
might become an academic? Or you didn’t know what
you would do at that point? JUSTICE GINSBURG: I
thought I would become– I wanted to end up teaching,
but not immediately. I wanted to practice for
five or six years first. MARTHA MINOW: One
of the things that’s very fascinating about
your jurisprudence is your openness to international
and comparative sources. And I wonder, does that relate
to this early experience with comparative procedure? Or did that develop otherwise? JUSTICE GINSBURG: It very
much related to that. I think I learned more
about my own system from seeing how another system
treated similar projects. And I have to say that
another influence was probably the best teacher I
ever had any place, with the possible
exception of Novikoff at Cornell– it was
Benjamin Kaplan. I had him for procedure. He was the first teacher that I
encountered in this law school. I loved his class. And you probably know, Martha,
that Ben with Arthur von Mehren and, I think, a
German collaborated to do this two-set piece
on German civil procedure. MARTHA MINOW: Classic, yes. Absolutely extraordinary. And then Kaplan,
who went on to be on our high court
in Massachusetts, continued to be the backbone
of procedure teaching even when I joined the faculty. You did become a professor,
first at Rutgers, then at Columbia. You did publish a book, Civil
Procedure, in Sweden in 1965. But you also started to work
on issues of gender equality. And the New Jersey Affiliate
of the American Civil Liberties Union became a place
where you did some work. The women’s Rights
Project at the ACLU, 1972, became your bailiwick. Did you have a
conception of a strategy? Or what led you to turn
to sex discrimination? JUSTICE GINSBURG: My
students and women who were making complaints
that they never made before. It was both sources. The students wanted a
course on women in the law. And to prepare for that,
I read every federal case from the beginning
of time bearing on gender discrimination. That was no difficult
chore, because there was hardly anything. I think, now, inside
of a month, there would be more than
there was in– MARTHA MINOW: Wow. All together. JUSTICE GINSBURG: –in all then. Then the ACLU in New
Jersey was beginning to get complaints from
women, mostly teachers. And their complaint
was the school says we must leave the moment
we begin to show our pregnancy. And they call it
maternity leave. But what it means is
you are forced out of the classroom at the
fourth month, the fifth month. And the leave is without pay. You have no guaranteed
right to return. If they want you,
they will call you. So there were those pregnancy
discrimination cases. And another type of case, a
woman who– this one worked at the Lipton Tea
plant– her workplace had a good health
insurance package. Her husband’s did
not, so she wanted to get family coverage
from her employer. Family coverage was available
only to male workers, not female. So that was another of those. And then there was Princeton. Princeton had a summer
engineering program designed to take children
from poor communities, introduce them to math and
science at an early age. It was a great program. Just one thing wrong with it. It was for boys, and not girls. So those were the kinds of
cases that– I wasn’t looking for them– but when
they were there, I thought, what a tremendous
opportunity for me. MARTHA MINOW: Did you think
that the experience that led up to Brown versus Board of
Education offered an analogy? Or that court
litigation strategy could be successful
on gender issues? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. Well, we were
frankly copying what the NAACP Inc. fund had done. That is, not to take
the court by storm, but to lead them
there in slow degrees. MARTHA MINOW: Step-by-step. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
And that’s what we did in a series of cases
litigated in the 1970s. MARTHA MINOW: Well,
and brilliantly done. You said that what
you wanted to do was open the doors
for men and women. And one thing that I think
isn’t always well-known about your strategy and
your approach to this is that you were really
addressing the constraints, the gender roles played in the
lives of both men and women. Is that right? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. And I think it’s best encapsuled
by– was it Marlo Thomas? MARTHA MINOW: Marlo Thomas, yes. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Marlo Thomas. It was a song. And the title was “Free
To Be You and Me.” So that was the idea. So if you were a man, and
you wanted to be a nurse, that was fine. And if you were a
woman, and you wanted to be a rocket scientist,
that was fine, too. MARTHA MINOW: There
was a recent decision to allow women into combat. And that was an issue you
addressed a long time ago. Or even, women in the military. And as I recall, the
question, initially, was a man who said, why should
men be drafted, and not women? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. And I was not involved in–
that was the Roscoe case. MARTHA MINOW: That became
Roscoe, ultimately. JUSTICE GINSBURG: And I was
already on the DC Circuit, I think. MARTHA MINOW: At the DC
Circuit when it was decided. Absolutely. JUSTICE GINSBURG: At that time. It came to the court too soon. MARTHA MINOW: Right. Right. Right. You were appointed to the
Court of Appeals in 1980. And from the start, you
established a reputation as being precise,
hardworking, absolutely on top of everything,
balanced opinions. And that’s continued ever since. Also known for your courage. And then appointed to the
United States Supreme Court in 1993, to succeed
Justice Byron White. And President Clinton
described your life story when you were appointed. Did you think that
becoming, then, the second woman on the
United States Supreme Court that that would be it? That it would only be two
women on the court at a time? JUSTICE GINSBURG:
First, let me say that two is my lucky number. I was the second woman
hired at Rutgers Law School, second woman
on the DC Circuit. I fully expected
that we would have three, four, and maybe more. Now we have three. But the Supreme Court of Canada,
our neighbor to the north, has four, four out of nine. And the Chief
Justice is a woman. MARTHA MINOW: And there are
some state Supreme Courts that have a majority of women. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. There was one
state Supreme Court that had only women for a time. MARTHA MINOW: Briefly. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yep. MARTHA MINOW: Yes. Many notable court
watchers are very impressed by your
expertise in procedure. I’m one of those, personal
jurisdiction and aerie. But also, many comment
on your expertise in economic and quantitative
analysis, that you are alert to that. And you’re alert to
the impact of law in the lives of people
and communities. Is that something that
you’re mindful of? Or it just happens in response
to the cases and the briefs? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Well, law
exists to serve the society, so how can you not
think about what is the impact on people
of the court’s decisions? MARTHA MINOW:
Everybody hear that? Your court is known
as a collegial court. And you are also known
as one of the people who helps to make that happen. How do you make that happen? JUSTICE GINSBURG: In the many
years that Marty was with me, one of the ways was he
was a fabulous cook. And for every Justice’s
birthday, he would make a cake. MARTHA MINOW: Oh, wow. JUSTICE GINSBURG: For the
spouse’s quarterly meetings, he was the chief caterer. [LAUGHTER] What do I do? I have no talent in
the kitchen at all. [LAUGHTER] Now at the court, we
have twice a term– once in November and
the other in May– a musicale where all the
justices and their friends come and take time away
from the briefs just to listen to beautiful music. MARTHA MINOW: That will help. You actually, as a group,
you engage in a ritual before– is it before you sit
on the bench– of handshaking and putting on your robes. Do you do that? JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes. It’s before every conference
and before we go on the bench. Either in the conference
room or in the robing room, we shake hands with each other. And then you’d look your
colleague in the eye and think yourself, even though
he wrote that nasty dissent– [LAUGHTER] –we’re all in this together. And we do revere the
institution for which we work. MARTHA MINOW: When Chief
Justice Rehnquist donned a robe with gold stripes on it,
many people wondered why. And you had a theory
why he did that. JUSTICE GINSBURG: It
wasn’t just a theory. I knew why. There had been, that summer,
a low budget production of Gilbert &
Sullivan’s Iolanthe. A major character is
the Lord Chancellor. The costume for this Lord
Chancellor in the summer production had a robe with
four thin, gold stripes. Now, the real Lord
Chancellor has four stripes, but they are broad and brocade. Very splendid. The chief copied the summer
theater costume, rather than the real Lord Chancellor. And when he was asked,
why did you do this? He said, I didn’t want to
be upstaged by the women. And by that, he
meant Sandra wore, very often, a British collar. And I had a variety of collars. [LAUGHTER] MARTHA MINOW: So there
may be competition among you and your colleagues. And again, with
this collegiality, I mean, last year you had
some pretty divisive opinions. This year, you may again. Do you think that
there’s a jeopardy that you won’t
remain as collegial? JUSTICE GINSBURG: There is. There’s always that danger. And I sometimes cross
my fingers and hope that we will not
have a major rift. So far, it hasn’t happened. It didn’t happen
with the Bush recall. Didn’t happen last
term with health care. It didn’t happen
with Lilly Ledbetter. MARTHA MINOW: Right. JUSTICE GINSBURG: So I hope
that we will maintain that. Really, it’s more
than tolerance. We genuinely care
about each other. And I saw that, personally,
through my two cancer bouts while I was on the court. MARTHA MINOW: You
mentioned Lilly Ledbetter. And in a minute, I’m
going to invite you all to share some of the
questions that you all talked with each other. In that instance, when the
court reached its decision, you actually spoke from the
bench from your dissent. That’s not something
that’s very common. When would you choose
to do such a thing? And why did you
choose to do that? JUSTICE GINSBURG: I
think, most years, I haven’t read any
dissent on the bench. But one year, I read two. I think it was Lilly
Ledbetter and Carhart. MARTHA MINOW: Yes, Carhart. Mm-hm. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
Because I wanted people to realize that what
the court had done was not merely wrong,
but egregiously so. MARTHA MINOW: I think
people listened. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Congress
listened with Lilly Ledbetter. MARTHA MINOW: Congress listened. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yep. MARTHA MINOW: Yes. So if you have questions,
come up to the microphone. I’m going to ask one more
while people are doing that. Is anyone doing that? Yes. We’re living in an
era of 24/7 news. How does that affect the court? And is that a case
for or against having cameras in the courtroom? JUSTICE GINSBURG: How does the
daily news affect the court? There was a brilliant scholar
at this law school, Paul Freund, who, I think, said it perfectly. He said, “The court
ought not to be affected by the
weather of the day. But inevitably, it
will be affected by the climate of the era.” And I think that’s so. I think that explains
why you had the quote, “conservative Burger court”
turning over statutes, state and federal, because
they discriminated on the basis of
gender, where it didn’t happen in the Warren Court. It was the climate of the era. But explain those decisions. But the weather of
the day should not. MARTHA MINOW: So
introduce yourself, and ask your question. AUDIENCE: Hi, my name’s Lana. I’m a 1L here. And thank you,
Justice Ginsburg, so much for coming
to speak with us. My question for you is, I
know you’ve spoken in the past that, given your
history with the ACLU and your other
advocacy work, you don’t think you would be able
to be confirmed to the Supreme Court if you were
nominated today. So my question is,
what advice would you give to a lawyer starting
out, nowadays, who is dedicated to spending
their life in public service, but also wanted to be eligible
one day to be a judge? [LAUGHTER] JUSTICE GINSBURG:
Well, have faith that we will return to
the way it once was. I regard this as a
temporary situation. I was nominated in 1993. The vote was 96 to 3
for Justice Bryant, who was nominated the next year. It was a similar
vote in the ’90s. The dean of this law
school had something like 30 negative votes? MARTHA MINOW: Correct. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
When she was superbly qualified to be on the court. I hope that what we have
seen in recent times is a temporary situation,
and we will go back to the spirit of
bipartisanship which prevailed in the
early ’90s, when the ranking Republican on the
Judiciary Committee, Orrin Hatch, was my biggest booster. So I hope that it will
be that way for you. AUDIENCE: Thank you, very much. AUDIENCE: Thank you, again. My name is Ezra. I’m also a 1L. I’m sure you can’t talk about
the call that you just took, but I’m curious,
when you get calls like that, what goes
through your head? Are you comforted by
the fact that there’s been a lot of
process, and you’re just the last one in the line? Or is there part of you that
sort of feels like executioner? MARTHA MINOW: Say it
again, the very end. How do you deal with
getting a call where you know that someone’s life
is really at stake, based on– MARTHA MINOW: So when
it’s a death penalty case. Yeah. JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yeah. This happened not to be– MARTHA MINOW: This was not. Yeah. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
–a death penalty– it’s the only part of
the court’s business that I genuinely hate. I’ve been on the DC Circuit for
13 years with no death penalty, so this was all new to me. And the first time,
it was really rough, the first time I
voted in a death case. They tend to set executions
at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. I remember staying awake until
after the execution and crying. But now, it’s something
that I just have to do, but I will never adjust to it. I will never feel
comfortable about it. I could have made the choice
that Brennan and Marshall made. They took the position that
the death penalty, in any case, was cruel and unusual. But if I did that, then I
would be out of the running. And I couldn’t influence the
results in particular cases. MARTHA MINOW: And
sometimes you do. Thank you. AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Laura Wolfe. I’m a 3L. And I’m wondering, if you
could– ignoring all precedent, all cases that have come
to this day– change any one major factor, feminist,
legal jurisprudence, or a law that affects women,
what would you change? And why? MARTHA MINOW: If you
were totally free? You have no colleagues,
no precedents? AUDIENCE:Yeah. What would you want to
see for women, basically? What changes in the law would
you want to see for women? JUSTICE GINSBURG:
I think the changes that are left– the most
important changes– can’t be decreed by any court. The court has ended
the closed-door era. It has held unconstitutional
most express gender lines in the law. The discrimination that
remains is more subtle, and it takes people who
care about it– well, I’ll give you one
example, because you’re all going to be lawyers. When our children
were young, we decided that, unless it was something
really of major importance, we would have dinner together
every night as a family. My husband worked for a
large firm in New York where the practice
was the associates stayed around the clock. Life didn’t have to be that way. The Tax Department was
one of the most successful departments. But everybody was
out of the place, everybody in that department
was out of the place by 7:00. Some people today
just think they have to conform to
whatever is the mold, instead of aligning with other
people who think like you to change whatever
is the firm culture. So I think the big
job is for you to say, there should be a family life,
a home life, and a work life. And you should be able
to do both successfully. And by the way, he
should be a parent. He will surely regret, when
his children are grown, if he hasn’t been part
of their growing up. AUDIENCE: Thank you. MARTHA MINOW: And you certainly
did this extraordinarily well. Your two children
are wonderful people, wonderful parents themselves. And it certainly
couldn’t have happened without having a
spouse who was involved the way that Marty was. But were there moments in
juggling work and family where you thought, if only there
was some other outside help, it would have made a difference? Or was it something you felt
was for you two to work out? JUSTICE GINSBERG: It
started in law school. Sometimes, if the babysitter
was not available, and I would then stay
home and then appreciate how my life was with– I went
to school and attended classes. And then I came home
to this young child. And it was a respite
from the law school work. And then the law
school was a respite from taking care of my child. But it was staying home for
a few days that convinced me that I wanted the balanced
life, and not exclusively one or the– MARTHA MINOW: Or the other. JUSTICE GINSBERG:
–or the other. MARTHA MINOW: Great. Yes? Oh, sorry. OK. AUDIENCE: I’m John. It’s such a thrill
to have you here. I’m wondering, to follow
on to your last comment about the courts have done what
they can in the area of women’s rights, what the other
areas are where you think the courts haven’t
done all that they can and could be doing more. And I know you can’t
comment on gay rights, but more broadly, where
can the courts do more? And where is it appropriate
for the courts to do more? JUSTICE GINSBERG: Courts are
institutions that don’t lead. I mean, it’s rare that
a court will move, unless the people want them to. So before every major change–
the Civil Rights movement– it was people who saw
that the laws were wrong, wanted them to change,
were fighting first to capture other people’s minds,
so that the movement would be large, and then to try
to get legislative change. And then the court
is the last resort. But the idea that you go
to the court, and the court will fix it, it doesn’t
work, because it has to be the people
who want the change. And without them, no
change will be lasting. AUDIENCE: Justice Ginsburg,
my name is Andrew. I’m a 2L. And thank you for
taking my question. I wonder, as you go
through the briefs and listen to oral arguments and
talk internally in the court, how often do you
change your mind? Or how often do your
colleagues change your mind, based on something you hear or
some points that you might not have brought up, compared to
preconceived notions of an idea of how the case might come out? JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Do I change my mind as a result of
the oral argument? AUDIENCE: Or any of
the other information that comes to light
from the briefs or talking to the
other justices. JUSTICE GINSBERG: Of course,
the briefs and the arguments will influence your thinking. In the class I attended, I
explained that, in some cases, I have no idea what
is the right answer. And I’ll read one brief
and find it persuasive. Then I’ll read the
answering brief and say, that’s a good argument, too. [LAUGHTER] And then I try to read as much
as I can other courts that have addressed the
problem, maybe a law review article
that’s digestible. I keep working at
it and reading, talking to my law clerks. And then– oh, I think my
son has just come– then either a light will
turn on, or the trees, there’ll be a path through them. So usually, by the time
I get to oral argument, I am comfortable leaning one
way or the other in any case. MARTHA MINOW: Great. AUDIENCE: Hi. My name is Jordan. I’m a 2L. I took Professor Klarman’s
Constitutional Law class last semester. We talked a lot about backlash
created by judicial decisions, especially in abortion, and the
death penalty, and gay rights. And I was just
curious whether you think that view is accurate,
that court decisions can create pretty large backlash and
whether other movements should be wary of creating that
through the court system. JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Well, I would hardly quarrel with my brilliant
former clerk, Michael Klarman. But I don’t think that the
anti-abortion movement, that it was just Roe v.
Wade, that movement existed before Roe v. Wade. It existed after. I do think that the way the
court went about reaching its decision did give them
a target that they could aim at that they didn’t have before. But the court decision is hardly
what created the movement. I should say that, because
I’ve been criticized for, she’s against Roe v. Wade. No, I’m not. I’m very much for the judgment
that the court rendered, dealing with what was the most
extreme law in the country where a woman could get
an abortion only if it was necessary to save her life. Could be disastrous for her
health, and it wouldn’t matter. The court easily
could have said, we’ll deal with the Texas law. That’s what’s before us. We’ll declare that
unconstitutional, because it’s much too
far out in disregarding the situation of the woman. But we then put our
pen down, and we wait for the next case, which is
how the court usually operates. This is an unusual
judicial decision, because it made every
law in the country– even the most quote “liberal”–
unconstitutional in one fell swoop. And that’s not the way the
court ordinarily operates. So my critique was
not of the judgment, but of the giant step
that the court took, instead of proceeding
by slow degrees. AUDIENCE: Thank you. AUDIENCE: Hi, Justice Ginsburg. My name is Caroline. I’m a 3L. You mentioned earlier that you
took a number of arts and music classes in your last
year at Cornell. And you’re a well-known
lover of opera. And I was just wondering that,
right now, when a liberal arts education is being
strongly criticized, how you feel like your
study of and interest in arts and literature
has affected your life as a lawyer and a judge? JUSTICE GINSBERG: It
has enriched my life. I couldn’t imagine living
without art and music. And I hope that all of
you appreciate that, too. I mean, living
without music, living without art, what a
very sterile existence. MARTHA MINOW: Not to
mention, maybe, you could even get colleagues
with whom you disagreed to have a common experience
of enjoying the art and finding another way
to relate to one another. That’s powerful. Justice Ginsburg, we
are honoring you today, though you honor us
more than we can say. We wanted to honor, though,
your 20 years, thus far, on the United States
Supreme Court. And underscore the
“thus far” part. And as a faculty, we thought
about what we could do. And we thought about flowers. We could give you a dozen roses. And instead, we
decided to give you a dozen essays, because
that’s what we know how to do. And so we have a dozen essays,
each one about a case of yours. And I will now describe
a sentence or two from each of these essays. I’m not going to read them all. And as I do so, I’ll
ask the authors, if they’re here, to stand. And this is also a
chance for everyone here to have a sense of the
range of topics and issues that Justice Ginsburg has
addressed and addressed so brilliantly. The first one is actually mine. And these are in
order, chronologically. [LAUGHTER] I am not going to stand. But this is a 1996 decision in
a case called, MLB verses SLJ. “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s
opinion in MLB versus SLJ, holding that estate may not deny
an indigent parent the chance to appeal judicial termination
of her parental rights by requiring payment to
prepare the trial court record, is a work of great
craftsmanship, as well as a just and
compassionate decision.” You did say something to
me about this opinion. I have to say, it is
remarkable that you had a court for this opinion. It is an enormous
landmark decision against a backdrop in
which the court has not been in support of actually
providing affirmative rights. JUSTICE GINSBERG: It always
seems, in retrospect, so easy. This was a woman
who was deprived of her parental rights. In order to appeal, she had
to prepare a transcript. And she had no money to
purchase the transcript– I think it cost
something like $2,000. MARTHA MINOW: Right. Exactly. It’s incredible. Yeah. JUSTICE GINSBURG:
So she couldn’t appeal, because she
couldn’t buy a transcript. Well, if you were in the
criminal justice system, even if it were a petty
offense that had no jail time, the state paid for
the transcript. And comparing the deprivation
that a parent would feel when she was declared a
non-parent to a petty offender who had to pay a fine
didn’t make any sense, to say that the state provides
a transcript for one, but not for the other. So it was that
theme that helped, to compare the deprivation. And forget the labels, that
one is a a civil proceeding, and the other is a criminal. What does it really
mean to the person? MARTHA MINOW: In
their lives, right. The next decision and writer
is Lee versus– is it “Keema?” JUSTICE GINSBERG: Kemna. MARTHA MINOW: Kemna, 2002. Vickie Jackson is the author. And her essay says, “This
opinion invites the state court system to continue to develop
and enforce procedural rules to assure the orderly
conduct of trials and trust them, appellate as
well as trial judges, to apply those rules with
sensitivity to the possibility that, on rare occasions,
an application will be so exorbitant that adherence
to the procedural values of our constitutional
judicial system should allow adjudication
on the merits. Trusting the courts.” JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Thank you, Vicky. MARTHA MINOW: Norfolk and
Western Railway versus Ayers. The author is Richard
Lazarus, 2003. “Justice Ginsburg knows the
court’s cases are ultimately about people, their lives,
and their livelihoods. And she never loses sight of
the fundamentally human aspect of the court’s work.” JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Thank you, Richard. [LAUGHTER] MARTHA MINOW: Grutter versus
Bollinger, 2003, Deborah Anker. Not sure she’s here. “We academics and practitioners
in the field of refugee law thank Justice Ginsburg
for taking leadership in legitimizing the role of
comparative and international law in our national context.” Susan Farbstein also wrote about
Grutter versus Bollinger, 2003, and said, “American attorneys
working on human rights issues, whether on the United
States or abroad, find her willingness to
consider the practices and logic of the international
community especially valuable.” Koons Buick Pontiac
GMC Inc. Versus Nigh, 2004, John Manning. “In this court,
statutory interpretation is a lawyer’s craft. And Justice Ginsburg
is a lawyer’s lawyer. She exemplifies the new
legal process school, which wisely recognizes that
Congress passes statutes to fulfill some purpose, but
that the words it has selected may clearly express that
purpose and its limits.” JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Thank you, John. [LAUGHTER] MARTHA MINOW: Then we get
Ledbetter versus Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, 2007. Your dissenting opinion. Lani Guinier wrote about this. “By speaking colloquially,
using the personal pronoun ‘you’ to address her audience,
Justice Ginsburg signaled to ordinary women
that the majority should not have the last word on the
meaning of pay discrimination. Her goal was to engage
an external audience in a conversation about
our country’s commitment to equal pay for equal work.” That might have been
about the oral dissent. Is that right? Yes, it’s about the one
you read from the bench. Next is Gonzales versus Carhart,
also 2007, also a dissent. And Larry Tribe wrote
about that, as well as Baze versus Rees,
2008, also a dissent. And Larry writes,
“It is the care with which Justice Ginsburg
decides when to disagree and the precision with which
she expresses disagreement that bespeaks the respect
for her colleagues and the institutions that others
sometimes honor only in form.” And I’m sorry. I think Larry had
a longer version that I don’t seem to have. I’m sorry. AUDIENCE: That’s all right. MARTHA MINOW: All right. [LAUGHTER] Very glad. JUSTICE GINSBURG: But
I’m very, very glad that Larry made that
point, because if I were to dissent every time I
disagree with my colleagues, I would never sleep. [LAUGHTER] MARTHA MINOW: Herring
versus United States, 2009. Another dissent. Nancy Gertner wrote
about this one. And she said, “Justice
Ginsburg, meeting the majority’s decisions on its own
terms, deconstructed cost-benefit benefit analysis.” Maple versus Thomas, 2012. Carol Steiker writes, “What
makes Justice Ginsburg’s opinion for the court
in Maples noteworthy, and what made it controversial
among the justices to the extent that it was,
was Justice Ginsburg’s explicit connection of the
breakdown of representation in Cory Maples’ case to
Alabama’s system of capital representation for
indigent defendants.” Coleman versus Court of
Appeals of Maryland, also 2012. This is a dissent. Julie Suk wrote about this one. And Julie says, “according to
Justice Ginsburg’s account, workplace discrimination
against women also includes actions that
well-meaning and rational employers adopt to avoid
the real costs of pregnancy and childrearing. Congress can thus
combat discrimination by making it as
expensive to employ men as it is to employ women.” And the last one is NFIB
versus Sebelius, also 2012, also a dissent. Mark Tushnet. And he writes, “Justice
Ginsburg’s dissent in NFIB versus Sebelius gave the
Chief Justice a gentle lesson in legal analysis and in the
politics of enacting statutes. She gave a more pointed
lesson in economics to the colleagues who
found the Affordable Care Act an unconstitutional
exercise of Congress’s power to regulate commerce
among the several states.” These essays are given
to you in a bound version, which you have. They will also be made available
online or in a publication. We’re not sure which, but
they will be available. And in that sense, we
hope to be giving you a bouquet for the bouquet
that you have given us. Justice Ginsburg, it is
an extraordinary honor to be in your presence. And we celebrate your 20 years
on the United States Supreme Court, thus far. [APPLAUSE] JUSTICE GINSBERG:
Please be seated. That’s enough. Thank you. Martha, may I say, I’ve
been to many law schools, and I’ve got many glass
figures and plaques. I have never gotten anything
that I will value more than this essay
collection, so I thank you. MARTHA MINOW: Thank you. Thank you, so much. Thank you, so much. And thank you, for taking
very good care of your health. [LAUGHTER] So thank you all. Thank you all. [APPLAUSE]

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  1. It is an intersting conversation because Ruth Bader speaks about her personal life. She never speaks about her mother. I think that Dean Martha Minow makes the right question. Great

  2. highlighting the importance of family, the importance of fine arts in one's life and working slowly and firmly for the equality of women are her great contributions to the society.

  3. I'm enthralled with all things Notorious R.B.G. these days. What a wonderfully capable and intelligent jurist.

  4. Inspiring and incredibly likeable with a fantastic sense of humour. Without a doubt the most interesting lecture for a female law student looking for inspiration, motivation and a determination to succeed.

  5. It's very comforting knowing this woman has an important say in our going ons. An impressive display of wisdom, brains, and decency.

  6. Very interesting. What is also very interesting (from an outside perspective) is Dean Minow's interactions with the various Justices.

  7. I still remember when Justice Ginsburg said her pen was hot when she was up late writing a brief. That was like OMG RBG!

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