Veteran justice laments politicization of Supreme Court confirmation process, expresses optimism about the future
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking to a crowd of mostly women Monday in Raleigh, recalled when so many opportunities were off limits for her gender.
“What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s Garment District, which my mother was, and a Supreme Court justice?” she asked. “And my answer is, one generation.”
The audience burst into applause. More than 1,600 people attended the conversation with Ginsburg as part of Meredith College’s Lillian Parker Wallace lecture series in Raleigh.
“As bleak as things may seem, I have seen so many changes in my lifetime, opportunities opened for people of whatever race, religion, and finally, gender,” said the 86-year-old.
Ginsburg, who spoke conversationally with Meredith alum and Wake Forest University law professor Suzanne Reynolds, said her mother had the biggest influence on her life. She taught her to be independent and not to waste time on emotions like resentment, anger and jealousy.
“A lady doesn’t let those emotions interfere with her life,” she said, of her mother’s advice. “Do things that move you forward.”
The justice of 26 years spent years fighting for gender equality before becoming a judge.
She described her journey through law school in the 1950s, when some men didn’t want women there. She cracked jokes about dating at school – apparently Cornell (where she went in undergrad) was the place to meet a man – and spoke fondly of her late husband, Marty Ginsburg.
“Marty was the first person who cared I had a brain,” she said. [He] was so secure in what he was that he never thought of me as some kind of competition. He was always my biggest booster.”
Much of Ginsburg’s work ethic and ability to survive working long hours came from her time at Harvard Law School. Her husband Marty was diagnosed with cancer during his final year at Harvard Law, so she helped him with his coursework while also keeping up with her own and taking care of their 3-year-old.
When asked if she could still pull an all-nighter, Ginsburg said that it would be possible “every now and then.”
“I’m 86 years old now so it’s not as easy as it used to be,” she said. “And I live in deadly fear of falling asleep on the bench.”
The justice appeared healthy and determined to continue her work despite recently battling her fourth bout with cancer.
Ginsburg was the second woman to work on the high court and sat for a time with the first, Sandra Day O’Connor. She spoke about a level of external sexism that went on at the time toward the two of them, but ultimately said the worst time for her was when she was the lone woman on the bench.
At the time, people saw “eight rather well-fed men and a small woman.” The representation that exists now (there are three women on the bench, including Ginsburg) is tremendously important to the public perception of the Court, she said.
“We’re all over the bench,” she said, adding that Justice Sonia Sotomayor is on one side and Justice Elena Kagan is on the other. “We look like we’re there to stay.… My sisters in law are not shrinking violets.”
Ginsburg also commented on the politicization of the high court over the past few years, noting that when she was confirmed, it was in record time compared to what goes on now.
She was nominated June 14, 1993 and confirmed Aug. 3, the same year, and only received three negative votes.
“Even Senator [Jesse] Helms didn’t hold me up,” she said.
The late North Carolina senator didn’t vote for Ginsburg, but he also didn’t try to stop her from being confirmed to the high court.
The process now, she said, is much more politicized, pointing to the GOP’s blockade of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia. Ultimately, Republicans were able to appoint a more conservative justice nominated by President Donald Trump.
“I hope I live to see the day when we go back to the way it was, and the way it should be,” Ginsburg said of the confirmation process.
Everyone on the bench, though, is friends, whether their political ideology leans left or right.
“Every justice wants the Court to be in as good shape when that justice leaves as it was when the justice entered,” Ginsburg said. “To do that, we have to be collegial. Collegiality really matters in our workplace.”
She described her personal friendship with Scalia, whose judicial and political philosophy frequently diverged with hers. She respected him and enjoyed his company.
Ginsburg also recited lines from an opera based on their dueling opinions called, Scalia/Ginsburg: The Opera, to help explain their affection toward one another.
“We are different; we are one – different in our interpretation of legal text but one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve,” she said. “And I think that’s true of every justice.”