U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke about her life and opinions on Supreme Court cases at Hill Auditorium Friday morning as part of the annual Tanner Lecture.
Speaking to a full auditorium of over 3,000 students, faculty and community members, Ginsburg discussed the issues that have defined her career, such as gender and voting equality.
Ginsburg, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, has seen several landmark civil rights cases during her time on the Court. These include United States v. Virginia, which discussed whether state-funded educational institutions could refuse to admit women, and Shelby v. Holder, which considered portions of the Voting Rights Act. During her time as a lawyer, she litigated multiple major cases concerning several aspects of gender discrimination.
Law Prof. Scott Hershovitz and Assistant Law Prof. Kate Andrias, who were both former clerks for Ginsburg, moderated the Q&A discussion-style event, using their own questions and some supplied by the audience prior to the event.
Andrias began the Q&A, asking why Ginsburg went into law when so few women were in the field.
Ginsburg said she was inspired by the atmosphere around civil rights, citing in particular the Red Scare during the 1950s, which led to many individuals being arrested on suspicion of Communist ideology.
“The idea was that lawyer is the profession, but it’s also something that arms you with the skill to make things a little better for other people,” she said.
She added that her choice lay between business and law school, and her graduate school of choice, Harvard, had not yet opened its business school up to women.
At a time when there was very little mention of women’s status in the law, Ginsburg said she subsequently began her legal focus on gender equality in the 1960s, while she was teaching at Rutgers University and serving as a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Rather than being self-initiated, she said both a student push for a class on gender equality law and a growing number of complaints to the ACLU concerning gender equality drew her attention to the subject.
Her first foray into the area came when the legal director from the New Jersey ACLU affiliate asked her to review three cases brought by women about gender discrimination at work and in school, part of the first wave of court cases involving that issue.
“Women who until then just accepted the way things were, and then because the women’s movement was reviving all over the world, decided they shouldn’t simply submit to the way things were — they should decide the way things should be,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg said the turning point for gender equality in the Supreme Court came after the unanimous decision on the 1971 case Reed v. Reed, in which the Court amended the social security law to ensure equality for women as estate holders. Ginsberg discussed how the court perfected the law to say sole surviving parent, whether male or female.
“If a law is imperfect, sometimes the appropriate cure is not to strike it down, but to extend it to the let down people,” Ginsberg said.
Ginsburg also spoke about some of her recent dissents on the court, in particular the Court’s 2014 decision to overturn a portion of the Voting Rights Act and 2010 decision to modify campaign contributions .
Addressing the Voting Rights Act, she said she viewed the case primarily as a determination of who is more suited to decide electoral issues.
“The legislature had overwhelmingly said the Voting Rights Act should be extended,” she said. “Should nine unelected judges trump that decision of the legislature? And my attitude was no, that the members of the political branch probably knew more about voting and elections then the unelected Supreme Court Justices do.”
Asked what decision she would overrule if she could, Ginsburg pointed to Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. She said whenever she goes abroad she is faced with questions about why the United States allows unlimited campaign contributions, which many say allows officeholders to be influenced by campaign financiers.
“There will be a time where people are disgusted with this and the pendulum will swing the other way,” Ginsburg said.
When asked about her approach to reading the Constitution overall, Ginsburg said she relied primarily on the first three words of it — “We the people” — though she noted that her interpretation of their meaning is fluid.
“I think the genius of our country is that now over two centuries, this notion of who counts in ‘we the people’ has grown,” she said.
Ginsburg may have surprised the audience by expressing criticism of the Roe v. Wade decision, and said the ruling created more of an uphill battle than if state legislatures had approved abortion rights on their own.
“If the court had been more modest, than the change would continue to move in the direction it was already moving,” she said. “Instead, there was one target for those who opposed a woman’s free choice, and that one target was Roe v. Wade.”
Ginsburg also touched briefly on the Equal Rights Amendment — language first proposed in 1923 that specifies that states may not deny “rights under the law” on the basis of sex — when asked what amendment she’d most like added to the Constitution.
“I would like to take my Constitution out and show it to my three granddaughters and say ‘This is a value of our society, just like free speech — the equality of men and women,’ ” Ginsburg said.
Toward the end of the discussion, Hershovitz asked if Ginsburg had any advice for young people in the audience.
“If you think of yourself of a professional, well you’re not just going to get a job so you can turn over a buck,” Ginsburg said. “If you do that you’re like a plumber. You’ve got a skill and you can earn a living from it. But if you think of yourself as a true professional armed with a skill, you could help someone who is less fortunate.”
Ginsburg did not touch on a Michigan case that is slated to go before the U.S. Supreme Court in April, DeBoer v. Snyder, which concerns the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
However, in an interview after the event, Law Prof. Margo Schlanger, also a former Ginsburg clerk from 1993 to 1995, said she was confident Ginsburg would vote to strike down the ban.
“I have no doubt in the world that she will think that equality demands nondiscrimination in marriage,” Schlanger said. “I don’t know what the court will do, but I don’t have a minute’s doubt about what her vote will be.”
Law student Lauren Dansey said she was excited to hear Ginsburg’s speech as she has long been a fan of the justice, having read many of her opinions.
“Right now she is my modern day heroine,” Dansey said. “After reading her opinions, she is not only a beautiful writer and articulate theorist, but she’s also inspirational.”
Dansey added that she appreciated her comments about the Voting Rights Act.
“Relative to what she voted for, I would not have thought that was not something she was passionate about,” she said.
LSA senior Victoria Bell, who noted she dressed up for Halloween as the persona associated with Ginsburg’s popular nickname, the Notorious RBG, said she found hearing the justice speak in person inspirational. During the session, Ginsburg also said she finds the nickname amusing.
“I dressed as notorious RBG for Halloween, and I think it was really inspirational to be here, hearing her speak,” Bell said. “My favorite part was probably hearing about what she had to say on the UVI case and all the arguments she did before she appointed a justice, because that was some really powerful work that she did.”