U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Visits Roger Williams University School of Law
Her “fireside chat” with Judge Bruce M. Selya marks eighth time a high court justice has addressed RWU law students
BRISTOL, R.I. – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at the Roger Williams University School of Law on Tuesday, recounting how groundbreaking court rulings have helped to expand the concept of “We the People.”
Ginsburg talked to more than 200 law students, faculty and staff during a “fireside chat” with 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Bruce M. Selya. She addressed partisan battles over judicial nominations, her role in fighting gender discrimination, her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia – and even her workout routine. The event was part of RWU’s year-long series, “Talking About Race, Gender and Power.”
During a question-and-answer session, a law student asked what decision has had the biggest impact on the young generation, and she cited the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
“It’s another example of how society has changed and the court is catching up,” Ginsburg said. “With the gay rights movement, people looked around and said, ‘That’s my next-door neighbor’ or ‘That’s my daughter’s best friend.’ There wasn’t that ‘we/they’ anymore.”
When it was written in 1787, the Constitution’s opening phrase – “We the People” – referred to white, male property owners, Ginsburg said. “Over the course of our history, the composition of ‘We the People’ has expanded. It now includes the people left out at the beginning,” she said. “So the idea of an embracive society that not simply tolerates but appreciates differences I think is what made our nation great.”
Selya noted that both he and she were confirmed as judges with overwhelming bipartisan votes, but in recent years Supreme Court nominees have been the subject of bitter partisan battles. Ginsburg said U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was her biggest supporter on the Senate Judiciary Committee, but she agreed that recent high court nominees have not received the same kind of bipartisan support.
“Some day I hope we will get back to the way it was,” Ginsburg said. “I think it would take great leaders on both sides of the aisle to say, ‘Let’s stop this nonsense and start working for our country the way we should.’ ”
Ginsburg said she does not want the public to get the impression that the federal courts are “just another political branch of government.”
“We have a great federal judiciary,” she said. “I hope we can keep it.”
Ginsburg, 84, has faced two bouts of cancer, and at one point Selya asked, “How do you feel now?”
“I feel fine,” she replied, prompting applause. “I attribute my good health to my personal trainer,” who has written a book about her workout routine. “Many reporters want to know about the routine,” but “most of them can’t do it,” she said, drawing laughter.
Selya asked about her friendship with the late Justice Scalia. “Even though we were often an opposite sides, we’d go over each other’s opinions,” she said. “My suggestions were: ‘Nino, you should tone this down – you’d be more persuasive.’ And he would call or come to my chambers and say, ‘You had a couple of grammatical slips in this opinion.’ He always did it on a personal level so he wouldn’t embarrass me.”
Ginsburg said she and Scalia shared a love of opera, and she described the comic opera titled “Scalia/Ginsburg.” In the opera, she recounted, the Scalia figure says, “The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this” and the Ginsburg figure replies, “The great thing about our Constitution is that like our society, it can evolve.”
Ginsburg’s visit marks the eighth time that a sitting or retired U.S. Supreme Court justice has addressed RWU School of Law students. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy gave the law school’s first commencement address in 1996, and law students have since heard from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. (2008), Justice Antonin Scalia (2008), Justice Stephen G. Breyer (2011), Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. (2012), Justice Elena Kagan (2013) and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (2013).
RWU School of Law Dean Michael J. Yelnosky introduced Ginsburg, citing a song Jews sing during Passover – “Dayenu” – that enumerates blessings, celebrating that any one of them alone “would have been enough.”
“Justice Ginsburg would be worthy of acclaim because she was the first woman named to the Harvard Law Review, and she graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law School in 1959,” Yelnosky said. “It would have been enough that while teaching she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, and while teaching she engineered and executed the legal strategy that led the Supreme Court to strike down gender-based government classifications as a violation of the constitution’s guarantee of equal protection.”
“Surely, it would have been enough that in 1993 she became only the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court,” Yelnosky said. “But of course, there is more. She has become perhaps the best known justice in the history of the court, and she has chosen to be with us today. Dayenu.”