U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation with President Biddy Martin
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation with President Biddy Martin

October 10, 2019


– [Announcer] Please welcome to the stage, Andrew J. Nussbaum, class of 1985, chair of the Amherst
College Board of Trustees. (audience applauding) – Good afternoon, and I know
I’m not the reason you’re here. I am a proud member of the class of 1985, and even more proud to be chairman of the Amherst College Board of Trustees. But most importantly, for
today, I’m a former law clerk to our guest of honor,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. (audience applauding) I have not before been in a
situation where I’m being asked to introduce two of my bosses,
one former and one current, so I’m gonna be very careful, and I’m gonna be extraordinarily brief. And there would be little
point anyway in trying to introduce to you Justice Ginsburg. You almost certainly know
quite a bit about her. You may have seen the biopics
that we were airing on campus over the past couple of weekends, or you’ve read one of the many
books about Justice Ginsburg, or seen her portrayed
on Saturday Night Live. Maybe you saw her perform
as a supernumerary in the opera, Scalia/Ginsburg
at the Kennedy Center. Some of you might follow
her workout routine, as reported in the illustrated
“RBG Workout” book. You may also have seen the
recent play, Sisters in Law, about the relationship
between Justice O’Connor and Justice Ginsburg. Or maybe you’ve read some of her opinions or many, many articles over the years. And the super ambitious
of you, may even know that she once wrote the most
important scholarly works about Swedish civil procedure. Surely you know, I hope,
that she is an honored member of the Amherst College, class of 1991. I hope that you are as
proud of her as I am. I would say that the 1991 mark
is particularly noteworthy, because I like to think
that Amherst College discovered her long before
President Clinton did. So I’m not gonna tell you
who she is and who she was, I thought instead I’d give
you just a very quick view of what it was like to
work for Justice Ginsburg as a law clerk. It was, in short, a dream job. It was four years of Amherst
College rolled into one. It was the liberal arts
education put to the true test. You had to be willing to learn a lot about many different things, and to recognize right
away, your total ignorance at the task before you. From constitutional law
to administrative law, tax law, intellectual property,
the rate setting obligations of the Federal Energy
Regulatory Commission, civil procedure, criminal
procedure, and so much more. You needed to learn to
dissect the arguments from litigants, with whom
you thought you agreed. Only to discover, after deep work, that they actually were incorrect. You needed not to assume the answers, but to test them, and to work at them. Not to guess the facts,
but to verify them. And not to give into
rhetoric, in favor of reason. Justice Ginsburg, like a
great Amherst Professor, taught us how to write. Clearly, succinctly, crisply. And I will say, that no amount of editing, from even the most
ruthless Amherst Professor, prepared me for the utter rewrites of my draft opinions for the Justice. Fortunately, she did not grade us. Many of the teachings
were quite unexpected and happened outside the
walls of our chambers. During that year, I learned how to make the most amazing brownies. It’s not what you’re thinking. (audience laughing) These brownies were a secret
recipe of Marty Ginsburg, The Justice’s beloved husband,
and the chef in their family. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is many
things”, he would say to us. “But a cook is not one of them.” I’m reminded today of another
great Amherst citizen, whose words were always carefully chosen, and often deeply
affecting, Emily Dickinson. On returning from a visit
with her, in August, 1870, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote down some of her most memorable expressions, including this one, “Truth is such a rare thing, “it is delightful to tell it.” I think you will all delight
in the truth Justice Ginsburg has to tell us, and also
in how she tells it. May I ask you, please, to
give a very warm welcome to Justice Ginsburg and our
President, Biddy Martin. (audience applauding) – Thank you, thank you so much. (audience cheering) – [Ruth] That was a
wonderful introduction. Thank you, I loved it. – And short. – Please everyone, be seated. Be seated, please. Be seated, so we can
start the conversation. – Justice Ginsburg, it’s such
an honor to have you here, and a privilege to have this
chance to ask you questions. But before I begin, we
have a surprise for you. Where is our chorus? Where’s the Choral Society? Here you are. Please, a treat for Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (bright piano music) (singing in foreign language) (audience applauds) (clapping) – That chorus is from
my very favorite opera, The Marriage of Figaro. – Our director, Arianne
Abela, thank you so much, and the Choral Society. That was so beautiful. Thank you, thank you. (audience applauds) Judge Ginsburg, as I told
you, I’ve been studying. I haven’t had as much fun in a long time, as I’ve had, reading in your words, reading some of the cases,
opinions you’ve written, and your dissents. But I wanted to start,
because you’re so well known for loving opera and
music, just by asking you, What is the experience? What are the feelings it evokes in you that have made music and
opera so important to you, over the course of your life, really? – I became hooked on opera at age 11, and I like to tell the story of how. The year was 1944. There was a musician,
a man named Dean Dixon, whose mission was to turn
children onto beautiful music. So he had an all city symphony orchestra. He would take operas ’round
to different high schools. He would abbreviate them to one hour, with bare staging costumes, and I was just blown away by the magnificence of
the music, the high drama. This man, Dean Dixon, left
the United States in 1948. He said in all the years
he’d been conducting, no one ever called him maestro, and that was because he
was African American. Although he had Juilliard degree, and was just like other
conductors, except for his race. So he went to Europe, where he
was the darling of everyone, and had a successful career, came back to the United
States in the late ’60s, when every major symphony
orchestra in the country wanted to engage Dean
Dixon as a guest conductor. So he’s kinda the Jackie
Robinson of conducting. And that difference, the 20 years, from his experience in
the ’40s to the ’60s, shows significant progress
in the United States in recognizing the talent
of all of our people, and not just some of them. So then I started going
to opera rehearsals at the City Center in New
York, the New York City Opera, and eventually graduated to the MET. Sometimes I’m just consumed by my work, and I’m thinking about it, these
legal puzzles all the time. But when I go to the opera, all of the briefs and opinions
are put on a high shelf, and I just enjoy the glorious music. – You and I both had some
years at Cornell University. You got your undergraduate degree there. Many of you will know that. I wanted to first tell you
again how extraordinary I find your use of language, as do most people who read
it, probably everyone. And you have said that
you learned to write from Vladimir Nabokov. So I’d like to highlight
this evening, as I often do, students will tell you I do, the importance of writing,
and the impact it can have on any career, really, but in particular, the impact it’s had on your career. – Nabokov was a marvelous teacher. He was a man in love
with the sound of words. I remember in the first day in his class, he read the opening pages
of “Bleak House” to us. And every now and then, he’d have a quiz. One quiz was on “Bleak
House,” and the question was, “When we first meet the character Peepy, what is his situation?” Nabokov said, “Almost all of
you remember that Peepy’s head was sticking through a grape.” A symbol of the misery of
impoverished childhood. “But only see number of whatever,” which happened to be my later husband’s. Not mine, my husbands. He said, “Peepy’s large head
is sticking through a grape.” Addition of the word large
intensifies the image. Or he would explain why he, having, I think his first language
was French, then Russian, then English, why he
preferred writing in English. He said, “Let’s take the white horse. If you are speaking french, you’ll say. (speaking in foreign language) But you see, you’ll see (speaking in foreign language) will be brown, and then
you have to adjust it to make it white. But in English the adjective comes first, so you never see the horse as brown, you see it as white from the beginning. I was very fortunate to have Nabokov in Modern European Literature. And also the Government
Department at Cornell at that time had Clint Rossiter teaching
the American Presidency. Robert E. Cushman, teaching
Constitutional Law. Mario Einaudi, teaching Comparative Law. And Milton Konvitz,
teaching American Ideals, so it was a great faculty. – [Biddy] So you got a good education? – Well, yes, yes. But there was some things
not right about Cornell in those days. One of them was the four to one ratio. There were four men to every woman, which made it a favorite
place to send daughters, because if you couldn’t
find your man at Cornell, you were hopeless. (audience laughing) But it also meant that the women tended to be smaller than the men. – Back then, too. (audience laughing) (audience applauding) – The excuse that was given for the ratio was that the women had
to live in dormitories. The men could live off
campus in college town, or in Ithaca. Years later, I get to
the Harvard Law School. Harvard Law School didn’t
admit women until 1950, ’51 was the first year, and I get there in ’56. No room in the dormitory for women. Dormitories are reserved for men, and the women have to
find a place in town. Just, neither one made any sense. – [Biddy] Little bit arbitrary as a rule. – Yes. – You grew up during the
war, and the Holocaust, and you’ve talked about
your sense of justice, having been part of you
from a very early age. You also came of age
during the McCarthy period. I wonder whether you
could reflect a little bit on either of those periods, but I’m especially
interested in how you think of the complexities of
freedom of expression when you think about the McCarthy era, compared to what we face today. – Well, I was at Cornell at the heyday of the Senator Joe McCarthy. He was a man who saw a
communist in every corner. People who had belonged to
some socialist youth group in the ’30s, at the
height of the Depression, were being hauled before the
House Un-American Activities Committee, or the counterpart
committees in the Senate, and being quizzed about
their youthful affiliations. There was one, much-loved
professor at Cornell. He taught zoology, he was
taken out of the classroom. Singer was his name. My constitutional law
professor wanted me to see that there was something very
wrong with what was going on. That we were straying from
our most basic values, that is we have the right
to think, speak, and write as we believe, and not
as Big Brother government tells us is the right way
to think, speak, and write. Professor Cushman pointed it out to me that lawyers were standing
up for these people, reminding our congress that
we have a first amendment, protecting freedom of expression, a fifth amendment, protecting
us against self-incrimination. So I got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to do. (audience laughing) ‘Cause I thought it
could get a paying job, but at the same time, do something that would make things a little better in your local communities. Little did I know that in
those pre Title VII days, Title VII is our principle
anti-discrimination in employment law, in the days when there was no restriction on discrimination in employment, employers felt very comfortable
putting up sign-up sheets that said, “Men only.” So, well, the changes
I’ve seen in my long life make me optimistic for the future, and especially optimistic
about the people in this room, and what you will do to repair tears, divisions in our society. – The people in this
room give me hope too. That’s what’s wonderful
about having this job. And freedom of speech today, do you see it as being
under threat, or not? – Do I think it’s under threat? – Mhm. – So far, I think we’ve done pretty well in preserving freedom of expression. I think part of the
reason is the experience in the days of McCarthy. – It’s an important history lesson for those who didn’t live
through it, certainly. I wonder if you would talk a
little bit about the tributes that you’ve written and delivered as talks to what you’ve called,
I think, trailblazers, women who came before, way
before, the 20th century, or the second half of the 20th century, and really paved the way for
the kinds of work you’ve done. I loved reading some of them, and I wonder if you
have a favorite tribute? – Well, we can start with Abigail Adams, whose advice was ignored
by our second president. But one person who is very
important in my own thinking was named Pauli Murray. Pauli was from North Carolina. There’s a wonderful book about her, called “The Firebrand and the First Lady.” The Firebrand is Pauli. The first lady is Eleanor Roosevelt. Pauli had written a very
strongly worded letter to then president,
Franklin Delano Roosevelt, saying, in effect, “How dare you speak at the
University of North Carolina. “That school won’t admit me
to it’s graduate program, “simply because of the color of my skin.” Somehow that letter found
it’s way to Eleanor Roosevelt, and those two struck up a friendship that lasted while both were alive. In the 1960s, Pauli Murray
wrote an article called “Jane Crow and Law.” Everybody knew about Jim Crow, but in this article, Pauli pointed out all
the artificial barriers that women face, simply
because they were women. And that idea, Jane Crow, it was kinda my marketing
orders for the next ten years, to get rid of Jane Crow laws. Pauli was a woman way ahead of her time. She went to Howard law school in D.C. And when she came there
in the middle ’40s, most of the lunch places
didn’t admit African Americans. So Pauli organized Howard
students to sit in, at those lunch places, in the middle ’40s, and desegregated all of the places, where the students ate lunch. This is long before the
sittings of the ’60s. She had gone to Hunter College
undergraduate in New York, and was taking one of her
friends, a white friend, back to visit her family
in North Carolina. And when the bus crossed
the Mason-Dixon Line, Pauli was told to go
to the back of the bus. She refused. She was arrested, again, in the ’40s, long before we knew about
Rosa Park in the ’60s. So she was a remarkable woman. She got a law doctorate from Yale, but at the end of her life, this is a woman who was
passionate about her religion, she decided that she would
like to have the last chapter of her life as an Episcopal minister. So she, Pauli was among the
very first group of women who were ordained by the Episcopal church. She was on the ACLU’s Equality Committee, and was one of the main people. All joined the ACLU, not to limit itself to
the First Amendment, but also to help implement
the Equal Protection Clause. It says, “Nor shall any state deny “to any person the equal
protection of the laws.” So she’s at last being recognized for the trailblazer that she was. And I consider it my great, good fortunate to have had a close relationship with her. – You’re so generous in the tributes that you obviously
research and then present, and are now published. And thank you for sharing that one. Speaking of the Mason-Dixon line, I wonder if I could ask
you about a specific case, and have you talk about one
that’s, you’ve actually said it was the combination of the many cases that you brought forward, and that is the VMI case. There are many things
about it that I appreciate, partly because I grew up
near there, in Virginia. But the opinion itself, and
Justice Scalia’s dissent are extremely interesting, but I wonder if you would
mind saying a little bit about the case, so everybody
knows what I’m talking about, and explaining why it was so significant. – The title of the case is
United States against Virginia. It was the federal government
suing the state of Virginia for maintaining an educational
opportunity for men that was not available to women. Justice Scalia ended up
as the sole dissenter. He predicted that the decision
would spell the end of VMI as it’s alumnus knew and loved it. He turned out to be quite
wrong in that prophecy, because VMI is flourishing today. They are very proud of their women cadets. I went back for the 21st
anniversary of the decision, and the place is, no question,
it’s changed for the better. It’s still a very rigorous program. They still have the so-called ratline, and their quarters are
spotless is an understatement. But the women who come to
VMI want to be engineers. One of them said she wanted
to be a nuclear scientist. They have been outstanding students. There are women on the faculty. There’s a woman on the board of trustees. It is a better place. Oh, the faculty was most
enthusiastic about admitting women, because it meant they could
upgrade their applicant pool. So to Justice Scalia’s credit, I should tell the audience that, though we were on
different sides of that case, he came to my chambers one
day, and he threw down a sheaf of paper, and he said, “Ruth, this is the penultimate
draft of my VMI dissent. “I’m not yet ready to
circulate to the court, “but it’s getting on into June, “and I want to give you as much
time as I can to answer it.” So I took his dissent with me. I was going to Circuit
Judicial Conference. It absolutely ruined my
weekend when I read it. (audience laughing) (Biddy laughs) But I was so glad to
have the extra few days to come up with responses. – There’s one line in
your piece, in your brief, that I thought was part of
a conversation with him, subtle or not so subtle that I love, but I might be over reading it. In which you are pointing
out that if some women, any women, desire the kind
of education VMI offers that’s enough to justify equal protection, and you also then go on to make the point, some men would not want
to undergo this sort of adversative training, and in parenthesis you say,
“Our dissenter, among them.” (Biddy laughs) (audience laughing) So that makes me want to ask you more. As I know a lot of students have asked, in these polarized times, How did you sustain such a friendship of the sort you had with Justice Scalia, despite the very strong disagreements? And what advice do you
have for our young people about the importance of friendship for democratic institutions
and how to build them, despite differing opinions? – What endeared Justice
Scalia to me, most of all, was his wonderful sense of humor. He was a very funny man. And when there were three of us, when he was on the court
of appeals with me, just three judges, not nine, he would sometimes whisper something that cracked me up, and
I had all I could do to avoid bursting out
into hysterical laughter. I can’t tell you some of the notes that I received over the years. (Biddy laughing) – [Biddy] Not even one? – And although our writing
styles were very different, we both really cared about good writing. We worked hard on our opinions, so they would be comprehensible, at least to other judges and lawyers. And at the optimum, a wider public. We shared a passion for opera, so we were supernumeraries, extras in two of the Washington
National Opera Production. And there is a opera about the two of us. It is, of course, a comic
opera, Scalia/Ginsburg. And by the way, my family’s
friends sometimes ask me, “Why did you allow his
name to go before yours?” Mine is first alphabetically. Because seniority really
matters in our workplace. Everything is done by seniority, and he was appointed to the court several years before I was. The comic opera tries
to set up the difference between the two of us, and I’ll just give you the gist of us. Early in the opera,
Scalia sings a rage aria. And the rage aria is,
“The Justices are blind. “How can they possibly spout this? “The constitution said
absolutely nothing about this.” And then I answer, in my
coloratura soprano voice, “Dear Justice Scalia, “you are searching for
bright lined solutions “to problems that don’t have easy answers. “But the great thing
about our constitution, “is that like our society, it can evolve.” So that sets up the difference between us. The plot is roughly
based on The Magic Flute. Justice Scalia is locked in a dark room, being punished for excessive dissenting. And then I enter through a glass ceiling to help him pass the
tests he needs to pass to get out of the dark room. A character left over from Don Giovanni, the Commendatore he’s called. He’s astonished. He said, “Why would you want to help him? “He’s your enemy?” And then we sing a wonderful duet. It says, “We are different, we are one.” Different in our approach
to reading a legal text, but one in our reverence for
the insinuation we serve, and for the Constitution
of the United States. – Is this anecdote true about him that President Clinton
asked him right before he nominated you to the
Supreme Court, asked Scalia, “Which would you rather have
Mario Cuomo or Laurence Tribe?” And Scalia said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” – It was a reporter, it
was not Clinton himself, but that was the choice he was given. Cuomo, Professor Tribe, and he picked me. – What about that moment? Could you talk about that a little bit? What it was like to be
nominated to the Supreme Court? – I was in Vermont, attending a wedding, when I get a call from
the White House Counsel, “Come back immediately, the
president wants to meet you.” And I said, “I’ve traveled all
this way to attend a wedding. I’ll take the first plane
back in the morning.” And they said, “Fine, will
you go right from the plane to the White House? And I said, “But I’ll probably be
wearing my travel clothes.” “That’s all right, the
president will be coming in off the golf course.” (audience laughing) – Well, I show up in my travel clothes. President Clinton is not
coming from the golf course. He’s coming from church services, so he’s dressed in his Sunday best. That’s how it started out. But we had a great conversation. In his days in Arkansas, President Clinton had been an adjunct
member of the law faculty, the University of
Arkansas at Fayetteville, so he wanted to talk about
constitutional law, which we did. But then I wasn’t called until
quite late in the evening. Then when he called me,
I was on cloud nine. It was this joy beyond reckoning. But then he said, “And tomorrow morning,
we will have a ceremony “in the Rose Garden, “and we’d like you to make some remarks.” So I had to descend from the
cloud, sit down at my desk, and write the remarks that I made, and that are in that book. – In the book I have, yeah. And it’s a very moving set of remarks. I’m thinking in particular
of what you said about your own mother. Do you remember? – Yeah. I don’t remember probably
saying this in those remarks, but I’ve often said, “What’s the difference
between a bookkeeper “in New York’s Garment
District,” which my mother was, “and a Supreme Court Justice? “The difference is one generation.” The difference between the opportunities eventually opened to me, and the much more restricted
opportunities available to my mother. – We have a cluster of
first year seminars here that focus on the topic of
progresses, question mark. I wonder, given what you’ve just said about the difference between your mother, the opportunities available to her, and those available to you, where do we stand right
now, with respect to rights? Are we still on a path that you’d define as progress, or not? – Well, we certainly
have made huge strides, but in no doubt also, that
we have not reached nirvana. And there is still rampant discrimination on the basis of race, gender. It’s true that most of the
explicit classifications, men are treated this way, women that way, are gone from the law books, but what remains is what has
been called unconscious bias. And one excellent example of
that is the symphony orchestra. In my growing up years,
I never saw a woman in a symphony orchestra,
except perhaps the harp player. Howard Taubman, who
was a very able critic, music critic for the New York Times, said, “Blindfold me, and I can tell you “if it’s a woman playing
the piano, or a man. “Same for the violin.” Someone decided to put him to the test. He was all mixed up. And then, someone got
the even brighter idea, Let’s drop a curtain between the people who are auditioning for
membership in the orchestra and the the judges, so they won’t see a woman’s
face or a man’s face. When I was telling this
story at a musical festival some years ago, a violinist said to me, “You left out something.” Well, what did I leave out? “You left out that we auditioned shoeless, “so they won’t hear a woman’s
heels coming on the stage.” But that simple device, the drop curtain, led to an almost overnight
change in the composition of symphony orchestras. Unfortunately, we can’t
duplicate the drop curtain in every field of human endeavor. Another good example of the
unconscious bias operating was the Title VII case from, I think it was from the late ’70s. Women were complaining that
they were not being promoted to middle management jobs at AT&T. And a comparison showed
that on every measure, up to the very last one, the women scored as well as the men, at least as well as the men. But at the last step, which was called the total person test, women dropped out disproportionately. What was the total person test? An interviewer is having a conversation with the candidate for promotion. Women drop out disproportionally. Unconscious bias, because the interviewer is not aware that he has
a certain comfort level when he’s dealing with a
person who’s the same color, the same gender, but he’s a little uneasy if
he’s dealing with someone from another race, a different gender. He doesn’t quite know
how this person thinks. And his discomfort shows
up in the lower score. So how do you overcome
this unconscious bias? There was a decision many years ago by the European Court of Justice, which is the highest court for the EU, and the question was, “In a particular province in Germany, “for a civil service job, “in a field that had once
been dominated by men, “could there be a preference for women?” The system was, if there are two people, more or less equally
qualified to do the job, pick the women, because the women have been
screened out in the past. When the European Court of
Justice wrote that decision, you could see between the
lines what they were saying, “We’re not so sure this
is a preference for women. “This may be just overcoming
the unconscious bias “that exists among the
male decision makers.” – Interesting. I wish I could ask you about
affirmative action now, but I will not. I will be restrained. I do have another question for you though, and it has to do with your
approach to creating the pathway to the eventual form of
equality that we have, the scope of equality that we have. It reminded me a little bit, by the way, of the work of one of our graduates, Charles Hamilton Houston, who
helped to lay the groundwork for what Thurgood Marshall
eventually achieved with Brown v. Board. The question I have, has
to do with the distinction that you make between Brown
v. Board and Roe v. Wade, when it comes to the question of whether the court should get, could, ought to get out ahead
of political processes and legislative processes. And you make that distinction, saying that in the case of Brown v. Board, getting out ahead made sense. In general, however, you prefer a different process over time. – But it wasn’t really getting
ahead in Brown v. Board. Thurgood Marshall was
insistent on building blocks, so Brown v. Board was not the first case of unequal educational facilities. He had the building blocks in place. One case, Sweatt against Painter, when the state of Texas finally realized that it could not
exclude African Americans from legal education,
set up a separate school that was vastly inferior in every way. And then there were other schools, other states, that would pay the tuition for an African American
to go to some other state, or isolate the student
in a corner of a room. All those building blocks were in place. You mentioned the Holocaust before. There’s also a connection there. The United States government filed a brief in Brown v. Board, in
which it said essentially, “We have fought a war
against odious racism. “They attempt to annihilate
all the Jews in Europe, “and yet, until the very
end of World War II, “our own troops were
rigidly separated by race. “And now, the then Soviet Union, “is holding up the United
States as a negative example “all over the world, saying essentially, “there is a partake in America. “Please, Supreme Court,
take that instrument away “from the Soviet Union, “and realize the principle
that was established “in the Holocaust, odious discrimination on the
basis of a racial identity, “is not compatible with any constitution “that provides for the equal
protection of the laws.” The problem that I
addressed in Roe was not with the decision. The decision, in my mind,
was absolutely right, ’cause it was the most extreme, Texas had the most
extreme law in the nation. A woman could not get an abortion, unless it was necessary to save her life. Didn’t matter if she had been raped, if the pregnancy was a result of incest, if her house would be
disastrously affected. None of that mattered. Only one reason, the life
of the woman was at stake. That was too extreme, and all the court had to do, was to say, “That most extreme law is
unconstitutional, period.” Instead, the court’s
decision in Roe v. Wade, which by the way, it wasn’t
controversial at the time. It was seven to two. The court made every
restrictive abortion law in the country, even in
the most liberal states, unconstitutional in one fell swoop. And that gave the right to life partisans, a single target to aim at. Instead of having to
fight in the trenches, state legislature by state legislature. Sometimes winning, sometimes losing. There was a single target. The unelected nine Justices, deciding this question, once and for all, for the entire nation. I think the development
might have been different if the court took the approach
that it took in Brown. That is, have the
building blocks in place. Take Texas most extreme
law, then the next law, and the next law. So people see that history differently, but that the decision has become a symbol in the political arena to charge the court with taking away from the people, the right to decide this
controversial issue. So who knows what would
have been if the court had been more modest. Just struck down the Texas law, and then let the law evolve from there. – Thank you for clarifying those views. There are other people
who want to ask questions, and I have a list of them. Before we turn to the questioners, the last thing I’d like
to give you an opportunity to say a little about, because
people are so fascinated and inspired by it, is your relationship with your husband Marty,
whom you met at Cornell. And with whom you had, at the time, very unusual relationship,
which you’ve said, was a big part of your ability
to do the work you’ve done on all of our behalves. – I’ve said many times that
Marty was the first boy I ever dated that cared
that I had a brain. He was so secure in himself that he would never regard me as any kind of a threat or a competitor. Instead, he was my biggest booster. I suppose he figured that if he wanted to spend his life with me, I
had to be somebody special. And he was a great cook. When he died, the Supreme Court spouses, as a tribute to him,
took some of his recipes. He had over 150 on a disc. They took some 30 odd of
them, and put them in a book, called “Supreme Chef,”
and Marty is Supreme Chef. He did, in fact, cater. The spouses met quarterly for lunch, in what was once called
the ladies’ dining room. Well, it got to be a little embarrassing when there was John
O’Connor and Martin Ginsburg were not ladies. So Sandra and I went to the old chief, Chief Justice Rehnquist with
an offer he couldn’t turn down. The Supreme Court has many traditions, and they’re not easy to
depart from, but this one was, ’cause we said, “Let’s call it, instead of
the ladies’ dining room, “the Natalie Cornell
Rehnquist dining room.” That was the chief’s wife,
who had died of cancer. And so he found that totally acceptable. (audience laughing) So they met quarterly there, and Marty was always the number
one pick to be co-caterer, because he was so skilled. That came about, because
our original arrangement when our children were young, I was the everyday cook. He was the weekend and company cook. When my daughter got into her teens, about 15 years old, she noticed an enormous difference between daddy’s cooking
and mommy’s cooking. And said, “Why should
daddy just be the weekend “and company cook? “He should be the everyday cook as well.” And, for me, it was like
Tom Sawyer and the fence. In fact, we moved to
Washington D.C. in 1980. And from that year to this,
I have not cooked a meal. (audience laughing) When my husband died, my
daughter felt responsible for my proper nourishment. She comes, and she will
come this Saturday. Once a month, she cooks for me. She fills the freezer
with individual meals that will last me til she comes back next. – Your daughter, who’s professor
at Colombia University? – Yes. (audience laughing) – A tip for all the faculty out there. Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. By the way, one last comment. In your writings and speeches, you stress so heavily the
importance of collegiality to the preservation of
strong institutions, and I simply want to think you for that. I find it an inspiration. And I recommend that everyone
read what Justice Ginsburg has had to say about the
value of collegiality, even in the face of
extraordinary differences in approach, to keep democracy alive. Thank you for that. Our first questioner from the audience is Bridget Carmichael, class of ’21. Hi Bridget. – Hi (giggles). So my question is, if you had to choose
another career in life, other than lawyer, judge,
or Supreme Court Justice, what would it be, and why? – I would be a great diva. (audience laughing) (audience cheering) I might’ve been Jessye Norman,
who sadly died recently, or Renata Tebaldi or Maria Callas. But sad for me, I’m a monotone, so the diva career was not an option. – Thank you, Bridget.
– Thank you. – James Minor. Hi James. Class of ’23, so you’re a new student. – Yes, I am.
– Welcome. – Hello, your Honor. You mentioned earlier in your conversation a lot about the differences, and the progress you’ve
made with Title VII. A lot of opportunities
that were open to you that weren’t open to your mother. But you, yourself, have actually presided over a lot of cases that have opened doors for a lot of different Americans, millions of different Americans. So my question to you is, of the cases that have been decided, during your time on the bench, which case do you believe
has had the largest impact, positive or negative, on America? – Well, read my dissenting opinions. (audience laughing) So negative impact, the Shelby County case that held unconstitutional key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The most recent, the decision last term in the gerrymandering,
partisan gerrymandering case. I thought and agreed with Justice Kagan, who wrote the dissent, that it was an abdication of
the court’s responsibility. And that partisan gerrymandering is gross about our democracy. So those are two. There are others. Citizens United, the inability
to control campaign spending. And I mention those
more than Bush v. Gore, because Bush v. Gore was a one time thing. It is of no presidential value at all, but these others do
have presidential value. – Thank you, your Honor.
– Thank you, James. Gabriel Echarte. Gabriel? – Hi.
– Aw Gabe, Hi. – Hi. (audience laughing) – [Biddy] I’m so focused. – Yeah, thank you so much
for coming to our school, Justice Ginsburg, we’re
all very big fans of yours. What do you make of the
current global phenomenon of nations trying to venerate parties, in increasingly illiberal
styles of government? And how do you see this phenomenon affecting the United States, and the rezones of our institutions? – [Gabriel] Sorry. – How do I see the development of– – [Biddy] Populism? – Just the global turn
to more illiberal styles of government. – [Biddy] More illiberal
styles of government? – And foreign populism too,
yeah, we can, do them all. – I just didn’t hear the right word. I wasn’t giving you a substitute, no. – Well, if you can take it to
the level of our own country, there was a great man who once said that, “The true symbol of the United States “is not the bald eagle,
it is the pendulum” If the pendulum goes too far to the right, it’s gonna swing back. The same thing, too far to the left. So I’m hoping to see it
swing back in my lifetime. There have been some hopeful
signs, too, about democracy. Think of the recent decision
by the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom that
told the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, that he
could not simply disband the parliament and get away with it. – [Gabriel] Thank you. – So you feel hopeful? – Over the long haul, yes. – Over the long haul, yes. Joe Flueckiger, hi Joe. Joe is head of our Dining Services. – I’m not gonna ask about
food though, I promise. My question is, you have lived through some
extremely challenging times. This period right now is no exception. How do you think people will characterize this period in American history? – As an aberration. (audience applauding) – Thank you. – Hunter Hughes. – I just want to say, thank
you for making the trip up north to see us. My question for you today is, what is the court case you are most proud to have heard and cast your vote on? – That I’m most proud of? Yeah, so that question is like asking, which of my four grandchildren,
one great-grandchild, two step-grandchildren, is my favorite. (audience laughing) I couldn’t, and I’ve been
on the Supreme Court now for over 26 years, so I
couldn’t pick out one case. I do have some favorites. The VMI case is one. On the dissent side, Lilly
Ledbetter’s case is another. My dissent in the Shelby County, Voting Rights Act case is another. Perhaps I should describe that for people not familiar with it. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, overwhelming majorities among
republicans and democrats. It was periodically reviewed. Renewed, periodically renewed, also with large majorities. The way it worked was that if a state, or a county, or a city,
had kept African Americans from voting in the battle days, that jurisdiction couldn’t make any change in it’s voting legislation,
unless it pre-cleared the change with the Department of
Justice, Civil Rights Division, or a three specially constituted, three judge district court,
in the District of Colombia. That check, the preclearance check, kept a lot of what might
have been discriminatory laws off the books. But the court said it’s now 2000-whatever, Voting Rights Act, 1965, there are many jurisdictions
that were discriminators in the battle days that aren’t anymore, so congress can’t simply renew
that list of discriminators. It has to do it over to see
who’s discriminating today. I regarded that as a
highly impractical view, because what legislator will stand up in Congress or the Senate and say, “Oh, my jurisdiction
is still discriminating “against African Americans. “Please keep us on the banned list.” (audience listing) Just wasn’t gonna happen. The formula wasn’t gonna change. That didn’t mean that
a state had no escape, because the Voting Rights Act itself had a bail out provision. That is, if the state, county,
city, had toed the line for X number of years, it could bail out of the
preclearance requirements. So that’s what congress set itself, provided a formula for exiting
from the precleararance. It was a case in which
I used the expression, “The courts tossing out the formula used “in the Voting Rights Act is like “tossing out your umbrella in a rainstorm, “because you are not getting wet.” (Biddy laughing) (audience applauding) – [Hunter] Thank you. – That’s good. Olivia Geiger. – Hi, thank you so much for
being here, Justice Ginsburg. My question is, what role do you think
that the courts have in addressing our climate crisis? – What role does the court have in addressing our climate crisis? First, I should make clear that the court, unlike the administration,
unlike the legislature, is a totally reactive institution. We don’t create the controversies
that come before us. We don’t decide this year
we’re gonna clean up laws restricting free speech. We’re a reactive institution. We react to petitions for
review that are filed before us, so unless there’s a complaint that’s gone through the court system, we
will never hear the question. So we will react in environmental case when there are challenges. Sometimes it’s environmentalists saying, “The government is too
lax in this regulation.” Sometimes it’s industrialists saying, “The government is too heavy-handed “in what it is requiring us to do.” But that’s how the court
gets to hear a controversy. It depends on the people
who care about an issue, bringing the case in the court. – [Olivia] Thank you. – Sarah Montoya. – Lately it feels that you
have become less of a person who happens to be a judge, and more of a symbol of
liberalism in America today. Distinct from the usual symbolism of the impartial robed judge. There’s been movies made
about you, skits on SNL, and there’s even RBG
merchandise that people wear on this campus. Do you feel that the
expectation to be a hero figure is a burden, or is it necessary
for the work that you do? – It’s an amazing phenomemon. And it was all created by a student, a second year student at NYU Law School, who read the Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County case, the Voting Rights Act case
that I just mentioned, and was angry. She thought the court
had done the wrong thing. And then she thought more, and appreciated that anger was not going to get her any place. She should do something positive, so she took my dissent
in the Shelby County case and created this blog, which then took out into
the web blue yonder. But people ask me, “Weren’t you surprised that
the name this student chose for you, Notorious R.B.G.?” But it’s the name of a famous rapper, The Notorious B.I.G. I said, “I wasn’t at all surprised.” (audience laughing) (audience applauding) Because the two of us had
something very important in common, that is we
were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York. (audience applauding) – [Sarah] Thank you very
much, I appreciate it. – Thank you, Sarah. Laura Gottesfeld. You doing okays still? Few more? – Yes.
– Okay. – Thank you so much for coming today. My question is, which case did the court
spend the most time deliberating on in the
court’s most recent session, and what aspects of the case made it the most
time-consuming, or complex? – I can’t say that the
court, at it’s conferences, deliberates long about the cases. Usually, we go around the table. Each Justice expresses his or her view, and then they’ll be
some cross conversation, but not too much. At some point, the
chief, or another Justice will say, “Enough talk, it will
all come out in the writing. So it’s not so much the
oral exchange of views, as our effort to explain how
we got from here to there. You know, the judges are
obliged to give reasons for what they do. The executive doesn’t
have to give reasons. The congress doesn’t have to give reasons. But we have to justify
in writing our positions, and that discipline in writing out, it’s a key discipline that we, and we’re trying all the time
to persuade our colleagues. As I said, more often, we hope
we can do it in our writing. So every time I’m writing
a dissent for four, I’m hopeful that my dissent
will be so persuasive, and I’ll pick up another vote. And most of the time,
that hope is disappointed. But one time, just to give you an example. I was assigned by my senior colleague to write a dissent in a criminal case, just for the two of us, so
the line up was seven to two. In the fullest of time, the
decision came down six to three. But the two had swelled to six, and the seven had shrunk to three. So as a famous man once said, “It ain’t over, until it’s over.” (audience laughing) – [Laura] Thank you so much. – David Schneider, Andrew W.
Mellon, Professor of Music. – It doesn’t plan this way, but I think my question follows
nicely on the former one. Given that you are well-versed
in the central issues in cases brought before the court, in advance of oral argument, how often do attorneys
appearing before the court sway your opinion, by
shedding light on aspects of the case that have not
already occurred to you? – Not often. (audience laughing) When a Justice prepares for
the oral argument session, she will have first read the
opinions in the trial court, in the Court of Appeals, so
she knows what other good minds in the judiciary think about the question. Then she’ll turn to the lawyers’ briefs, including the umpteenth
friend of the court briefs that get filed, the relevant precedent, perhaps law review, commentary, so it’s, no one enters the oral
argument with an empty mind. But no one should enter
either with a closed mind. There is always some room to be affected by the oral argument. Now sometimes, they’ll be a
big issue, substance of issue, and the oral argument will reveal that there’s a procedural
obstacle to reaching that issue. Sometimes council will bring that out, will bring out the procedural hindrance. I did see once in the 26 years, a case where the court
turned around 180 degrees on the basis of an oral argument, and it was a capital case. It was one on the basis of the facts. The lawyer was so excellent, that he presented a picture of the facts that led the majority of the court to believe that the
defendant wasn’t the one who did the dastardly deed. It was Beanie who did it, but
that was a remarkable feat. Wasn’t on the basis of
the law, just on the basis of the fact record that that lawyer was able to persuade the Supreme Court that the lower court missed the vote. Still, it’s important to have
an oral argument session. It’s kind of a last clear
chance that the lawyer has to try to influence
the minds of the people who will decide the case. – [David] Thank you very much. – You had some influence
in your arguments. – Hmm? You had some influence
in your oral arguments. – Yes, I hope so. – Ilyssa. Ilyssa. Go ahead. (audience laughing) Including, I think it
was, yes, in Frontiero, I quoted Sarah Grimke, who said, “I ask no favor for my sex,
all I ask of our brethren “is that they take their
feet off our necks.” – Yeah, beautiful. – That got a lot of attention. – Yes, that I like even
better than the umbrella. But they’re both great. Yes, Ilyssa Forman., class of ’22. – Hi, Justice Ginsburg. I just want to say that I adore you, and you’re my inspiration,
so thank you for being here. How would you say that your
experiences as the daughter of two Jewish immigrants, and as a first generation college student on scholarship and other
forms of financial assistance have informed your role as
a Supreme Court Justice? – One day, my father
came to the United States from what is today
Ukraine, when he was 13. My mother was the first
person in her large family, born and bred in the USA. So my mother arrived in New York, four months before my mother’s birth. She was conceived in the old country, born in the new country. And what was the? – What Impact?
– How? – [Biddy] Go ahead. – Yeah, how has that background
of your Jewish heritage, and also being a first
generation college student, how have those things informed your role as a Supreme Court Justice? – Well, one of the things
that my mother instilled in me was a love of learning. Even though she had no college education, she was bound and determined to see that I did have a good education. In those age and days,
in her large family, the eldest son went to Cornell University, but the others, the boys,
as well as the girls did not have that opportunity. It was reserved for the eldest son. I’m very proud of my Jewish heritage. Well, there’s a saying in Hebrew. (speaking in foreign language) Is justice, justice, shall you
pursue, that you may thrive. So a judge can thrive only
if she pursues justice. – Thank you so much. – Danielle King. – Hi, my question is how should justices in the United States
utilize international law when debating and deciding cases? – Well, and it should make a distinction between foreign law and international law. International law is
the law governs conduct between nations, so
international law is undoubtedly part of our law, as it is part
of the law of every nation in the world. There has been some
question about the utility of citing foreign law, that is, take a question that has come
up in different legal systems, and look to see how another system would answer that question. So the latter, foreign law,
is not part of our law, but we can look to what
our counterpart courts in other places in the world. We can look to their
decisions for enlightenment. The same way I could read
a professors commentary on an issue. Why not refer to a brilliant
judgment of another court? But foreign law is definitely not our law. It is a source, it is one of many sources, that may give us some
enlightenment on an issue. So, for example, in the line of cases, leading up to the gay marriage decision, Justice Kennedy had looked
at how these questions were being treated in other nations. Not because it was in
anything that’s binding on us, but to see that others committed
to democratic principles had wrestled with this hard question. – Thank you. Morgan Yurosek. – Hi, Justice, thank you so much for spending some time
with our community today. As our senior class prepares
to embark on our careers, I’m curious to know, what
was the most valuable, or impactful piece of
constructive feedback you received during the
early years of your career. – The most constructive feedback? Well, I’d say the most
constructive advice that I received came from my mother-in-law on
my wedding day when she said, she would tell me the
secret of a happy marriage. I’d love to know, what is it? Every now and then, it
helps to be a little deaf. (audience laughing) That is, if an unkind or
thoughtless word is said, you just tune out. You didn’t hear it. And then some very good advice
I had from my father-in-law, and I had two years between
graduating from college and starting law school. And in that period, my
first child was born. And I was concerned about
how I could manage the rigors of the Harvard Law
School with an infant. And my father-in-law said to me, “Ruth, if you decide
not to go to law school, “no one will think the less of you. “It’s an entirely legitimate choice. “But if you really want to be a lawyer, “you will stop worrying
over this question. “You will pull yourself
together and find a way.” So that’s the question I’ve answered every important turning point in my life, “Do I want this enough?” And if the answer is
yes, then I go for it. – Thank you.
– That’s wonderful. – Beth Ollson, one of our
Amherst Fund Coordinators. Hi, Beth.
– Hi. Amherst is a community that
prides itself on excellence, which often creates a
culture of perfectionism. Do you have any advice that
might help us to be more humble in forgiving our mistakes
and shortcomings? Both of ourselves, and of others? – Well, to error is human. (laughs) So it’s been said that, what is the expression? The perfect is the
enemy of the good, yeah. So what was? – You gave some good
advice with that comment. The question was, “How would you advise people here to be a little more forgiving and?” – Yeah, well one thing is to listen. Because listening seems
to be less prevalent today than it once was. I know one of my dear
colleagues on the Supreme Court, Justice John Paul Stevens, talked about learning through listening. Listening to people with
different points of view, trying to understand those
different points of view, which may lead to strengthening
your opposing views, but that idea of learning
through listening. Listening to people who have
different points of views, recognizing that there may be some merit to what they’re saying, and thinking of arguments that
will sure up your position. That’s what I would advise, more listening and less talking. – [Beth] Thank you so much. – Catherine Sanderson,
Maxwell Family Professor in Life Sciences. – Thank you so much for being here. It’s been a turbulent
few years in America. What words of hope can
you give us about the role of the Supreme Court in helping
to ease this turbulence? – Well, as I already commented, The Supreme Court doesn’t
have an agenda of it’s own. It doesn’t decide that we’re
gonna take care of this area or that area. It is a totally reactive institution. It depends upon people,
bringing cases before us that will present the issue. A very wise Court of Appeals judge said, “The courts don’t make the conflagrations, but they do their best to put them out.” So it’s important to understand
the role of the court, unlike the legislature, is
we don’t have an agenda. We react to what’s out there, questions that our brought to us. – [Catherine] Thank you. – Was it hard for you to
switch from being an advocate to being a Justice? – I think I’m still an advocate. – I think so too, yeah. – When I write a dissent,
as I said before, I’m always hopeful that
my advocacy will persuade. I mean, it’s a smaller audience. There’s only nine of us, but. – But you have what you
call your sisters there now? – I have, yes, Justices
Sotomayor and Kagan. – Yeah. – Yeah, it really has
changed the institution, ’cause when, the worst time
was when I was all alone. Justice O’Connor retired, and
there I was, the lone woman. The public saw eight
rather well-fed men emerge on the bench, and then this small woman. But now, because I’ve been there so long, I sit next to the chief. Sotomayor is on one side. Kagan on the other side. My sisters in law are
not shrinking violets. They are very active in the colloquy that goes on at argument sessions. When Justice O’Connor and I overlapped, invariably one lawyer or another would call me Justice O’Connor, because they knew there was a woman on the Supreme Court, and her
name was Justice O’Connor, even though we didn’t speak
alike, we didn’t look alike. But now, nowadays, no one calls me Justice
Sotomayor or Justice Kagan, and nobody calls them Justice Ginsburg. So that’s progress. – Just as we end, let me as you this. Will there ever be an
equal rights amendment? – I hope so. – Yeah, I thought you might hope so. – And the reason I hope
so is when I take out this pocket constitution, which I take with me
wherever I am in the world, I would like to be able to
say to my granddaughters, the equal citizenship
stature of men and women is as basic to our society
as free speech, for example. So I can point to the First Amendment. (audience applauding) But the equal protection
clause that became part of the constitution in 1868, if you ask the framers of that amendment, “Did that guarantee equal
treatment of women?” They would say, “Of course not.” In many states, women once
they marry can’t own property in their own name, can’t sue
and be sued in their own name, can’t contract in their own name. All those married women disabilities, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment did not intend to change. But yet, the basic idea of equality does have growth potential, so things that were not understood as violations of equal protection in 1868 are so recognized today. But because the Fourteenth
Amendment was not designed to do anything about the equal
treatment of men and women, it would be, to me, very
desirable to state that premise, just the way we state
freedom of speech, religion, as one of the fundamental
tenets of our democracy. So even if you can urge that we’ve come under the
equal protection clause, about as far as we might under
an equal rights amendment, so it’s oddly symbolic. Even if that’s true, it’s
a very important symbol. Every constitution in the world, written since the year 1950, has the equivalent of an
equal rights amendment, and I think it’s time for us to catch up. (adience applauding) – Justice Ginsburg, it’s
such a pleasure to sit here with someone so accomplished,
so guided by principle, so devoted to truth-seeking,
so steady, so consistent. It’s a boom, in the midst
of what we’re experiencing in the world, and I
couldn’t thank you enough. Before I thank you, and allow
the audience to thank you, I just want to take a minute
to thank the many staff at Amherst College, who
have made it possible for us to have the event in
this gym in Coolidge Cage. It was a lot of work,
and on the parts of many. Perhaps, more than any other, Austin Huot and his events team. And I know that everyone
is glad, I certainly am, that so many more of us could attend, than could have attended otherwise, so a big round of applause for our staff. (audience applauding) And a special note about the
creativity of our students. The first time I actually
thought of asking our staff about Coolidge Cage
came when I got an email from one of our undergraduate students. Well, we’re all undergraduates. You’re all undergraduates. Hunter Lampson, who is
seated by my partner here in the front row, who
wrote to me and said, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is someone that many in the community, all who
wish, should be able to hear.” You cited a president
of the United States, who spoke in the Cage many years ago. I can’t remember which one. But in any case, thanks to Hunter Lampson, and all of our creative students, who write to me and tell
me the right thing to do. (audience laughing) (audience applauding) Everything we know about Justice Ginsburg tells us how generous she
is, but I must also tell you she arrived here this afternoon, did over an hour long
seminar with students about last session’s cases, answered many questions at length in the most informative way, and has done that again tonight. This is such a privilege, and your generosity
seems to know no bounds. Similarly, your energy. Let us rise, and thank
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (audience cheering) – [Ruth] Thank you. Thank you so much. So we’re going out this way? (audience applauding)

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