Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told the audience at a Thursday Davenport Master’s Tea that if she had not entered the field of law, she would be a “great diva.”
Before nearly 100 students and faculty members, Ginsburg discussed topics ranging from her early career at the American Civil Liberties Union to her role as a leading female figure in the field of law. Ginsburg, who became the second woman ever to be appointed to the nation’s highest court in 1993, is currently on campus to deliver the inaugural Gruber Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Rights at the Yale Law School on Friday in Battell Chapel.
During the talk — moderated by Davenport Fellow Emily Bazelon, a senior editor at Slate Magazine and a senior research scholar at the Yale Law School — Ginsburg gave audience members an overview of her experiences as a justice on the Supreme Court, including her opinions on recent rulings and the need for the Supreme Court to remain politically neutral.
“We have a solemn obligation to leave [the Court] in as good a shape as we found it,” Ginsburg said. “So unlike the political branches of government, we can’t just vote yay or nay — we have to give reasons.”
Toward the beginning of her presentation, Ginsburg said she was “exhilarated” when she gained two new female colleagues on the Supreme Court — Justice Sonia Sotomayor LAW ’79 and Justice Elena Kagan — over the last four years. She added that in her early days on the Court, lawyers commonly confused her and now-retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor because they were previously the only two female justices.
Ginsburg also addressed notable Supreme Court rulings over the past few years, including last summer’s landmark decision to uphold most provisions of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. Ginsburg said the ruling showed a “stunning reversal of what had been the law” because the legislation was not upheld under the Commerce Clause, which grants Congress power to regulate interstate commerce. Since the New Deal was passed in 1937, the Court had not deemed any Congressional legislation concerning economic or social issues to have exceeded Congress’ power, she added.
Ginsburg said she tries to write dissents in cases when she believes that Congress can pass new legislation making the majority ruling irrelevant or when she considers the majority ruling a “constitutional error” and aims to address future courts. When she serves as the senior dissenting justice, she said, she tries to reach a consensus among the dissenters so that only one dissenting opinion is written.
To address the perception that the Supreme Court has become increasingly politicized in recent years, Ginsburg said that the press focuses too intently on closely contested cases. She said that in reality, nearly 40 percent of cases before the Supreme Court are decided unanimously. Still, she added that the narrow rulings are never influenced by politics and all opinions expressed by the Court are interpretations of the Constitution.
“It’s our view about constitutional law and how it should evolve,” she said.
Davenport Master Richard Schottenfeld said Ginsburg is a “heroine” because of her commitment to taking measured steps toward progress and her ability to understand the way each ruling will affect individuals. He added that when considering difficult decisions, he hoped that people would ask, “What would Ginsburg have thought?”
Students who attended the Tea said they were impressed by Ginsburg’s ability to effect change over a long period of time.
Jacob Reske ’14 said he enjoyed hearing about Ginsburg’s “wisdom [in making] so many decisions.”
Amanda Shadiack ’14 said she appreciated Ginsburg’s commitment to feminism, calling her “possibly one of the most important feminist legal scholars of our time.”
“That she is able to retain her very ethical, very pronounced, very powerful views about women’s rights and about other things that she’s passionate about … is one of the most important things that the feminist movement needs right now,” she said.
Ginsburg was former President Bill Clinton’s LAW ’73 first appointment to the Supreme Court.