The United States should strive to be a welcoming place for both diversity and the freedom to express one’s views, argued U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a promotional event Thursday evening for her book, which was co-written by two Georgetown University Law Center professors.
At the event, Ginsburg shared the stories behind her court decisions and her career experiences alongside contributing authors and biographers of her book “My Own Words,” professors Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams.
Jeffrey Minear, counsel to Chief Justice John Roberts and executive director of the Fellows Program introduced Ginsburg, Hartnett and Williams along with moderator Nina Totenberg, a National Public Radio reporter who covers the Supreme Court.
Totenberg began the discussion by asking about the justice’s health and famed workout routine, which she does at the Supreme Court gymnasium for one hour twice a week.
“Do you still do the medicine ball?” Totenberg asked.
“Oh, I do various-sized balls,” Ginsburg replied after inquiring about the definition of a medicine ball.
Totenberg asked the biographers for their favorite stories about the justice and excerpts from the book.
Williams cited Ginsburg’s writing on the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which ruled the prohibition of interracial marriage unconstitutional.
“It’s one of the shortest ones in there and it’s a little piece on the Loving marriage and Loving case, which she said is one of the most important cases decided by the Supreme Court,” Williams said. “Ruth wrote this quite a bit before there was ever a movie coming out about it.”
Ginsburg argued that the Loving case, along with the Kirchberg v. Feenstra decision overturning Head and Master law — which permitted a husband to have final say about all household decisions — were integral in setting the precedent for the later decision to effectively legalize same-sex marriage in the 2013 United States v. Windsor case, which deemed the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
“Marriage had to become a relationship between equals before there could be any thought of same-sex marriage,” Ginsburg said.
Hartnett followed that up with a lighthearted story about Ginsburg going parasailing in Nice, France, in 2002 with former Hofstra Law Dean David Yellen.
Ginsburg said her favorite excerpts from the book were those written by her late husband and fellow lawyer, Marty Ginsburg, who was a professor at GULC until his death in 2010.
Totenberg asked Ginsburg to share a piece of marital advice.
“When my late husband died and I remarried, she performed the ceremony, so I wonder if I could get her to tell the story of her wedding and the advice that her mother-in-law gave her,” Totenberg said.
“She told me, ‘Sometimes, it helps to be a little deaf,’” Ginsburg recalled. “And I have followed that advice assiduously, not only in my marriage but in every place I work.”
Totenberg quickly segued into a discussion of more current concerns, specifically focusing on Ginsburg’s opinions of the process of filling a seat on the bench formerly occupied by the late Justice Antonin Scalia (CAS ’57).
Ginsburg pointed out that the U.S. Senate confirmed Scalia unanimously and that she was confirmed by a 96-vote majority. When Totenberg later pressed her for an opinion on President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, she recalled befriending him on a justice exchange program in the United Kingdom.
“I think he’s very easy to get along with. … He writes very well,” Ginsburg said.
The remainder of the discussion centered on Ginsburg’s legacy of feminism within the judicial system. Among other topics, she spoke about the importance of defending principles and the mentorship she received from the first female justice on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
When asked about the stupidest question she had ever received, Ginsburg spoke about former Chief Justice William Rehnquist and how he asked about her willingness to settle for Susan B. Anthony’s face on the new dollar coin.
“That was still okay to say in 1978. Then, flash-forward many years; it was the same man who wrote an opinion that so well understands what working women encounter that when I brought the decision home to show it to Marty, he asked me if I wrote it,” Ginsburg said. “So that’s one of my best examples that as long as we live, we can learn.”
The event was sponsored by the Newseum and the Supreme Court Fellows Program in their eighth consecutive year of partnership.
Ginsburg said the United States should be a society open to dialogue and cooperation, and that the United States is “not experiencing the best of times.”
“Our history has been so long I think that we will preserve both of those: the right to think, speak and write as we believe and not as big brother government tells us is the right way to think and welcome our neighbors,” Ginsburg said.
Following that, she ended on a note of optimism and progress when Totenberg asked about the differences made by having three women on the court.
“Because of my seniority, I sit toward the middle of the bench. Justice Sonia Sotomayor is on my left and Justice Kagan is on my right. We look like we are there to stay,” Ginsburg said. “Now when people visit the Supreme Court, they can say, ‘Women are justices, and that’s something I can aspire to. I can aspire to be a lawyer or a judge.’”
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