As the nation’s political elite was filing into the U.S. Capitol for President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not among those taking her seat for the speech.
She was speaking to a rapt audience of more than 1,000 at Temple Beth El on Providence’s East Side. Taking questions from her old friend from Harvard Law School, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Senior Judge Bruce Selya, Ginsburg used some diplomatic humor to explain her absence from the capitol and her appearance at the Providence synagogue.
The Providence event, she said, was planned before President Trump scheduled the date of the annual address. “I’ll say no more,” she quipped as the audience roared with knowing laughter.
One of the court’s staunch liberals, Ginsburg was nominated to the nation’s highest court by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993 after a path-breaking career as a law professor, a lawyer devoted to women’s rights, and as a federal judge.
Ginsburg was drawn to the law during the McCarthy era in the 1950s, when she witnessed the Wisconsin senator’s communist witch hunts of the state department and the film industry. She was one of just nine women in her class of about 500 at Harvard Law School.
“It was a very frightening time,” Ginsburg said, a time when some in the government sought to persecute people for their thoughts. She gravitated to the law, she said, because she came to believe that lawyers could “make conditions a little better for our society.”
As an undergraduate, she was influenced by a constitutional law professor, which comes as no surprise, and by Vladimir Nabokov, who taught literature at Cornell University when she was an undergraduate there.
As a woman in the overwhelmingly male profession of the law, Ginsburg faced a wide spectrum of discrimination, which became the fulcrum for her emergence as a lawyer battling for women’s rights and equality.
The status of women in the law profession she describes from the 1950s, 60s and 70s hardly seems believable today, but of course it existed. Women professors in law schools were routinely paid far less than men –the rationale being that men had to support families.
It wasn’t just the white collar legal profession that was suffused with prejudice yoked to sex. She describes in detail a case where Columbia University fired women maintenance workers, called “maids,” while preserving jobs for male maintenance workers, labeled “janitors.”
She talked about her tenure working on the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. When she began in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court had never found a gender-based work classification system unconstitutional.
In those days, she recounted, women couldn’t legally work in some states as a bar tender unless they were the wife or daughter of a tavern owner.
One of her inspirations, she said, was Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. Marshall had a long, celebrated career as a civil rights lawyer. He and other civil rights advocates searched the nation for cases they believed they could win in courts, setting precedents that were the foundations for future lawsuits. A good example, Ginsburg said, was a case Marshall argued against the state of Texas, which refused to allow blacks to study at the University of Texas Law School. In response, Texas set up an all-black law school that proved inferior to the state university law school established for white students.
That legal victory set the table for the Brown V. Board of Education , the Topeka, the 1950s Kansas school case that led the Supreme Court to end segregation in public schools.
As a black civil rights lawyer, Marshall had it more difficult than did Ginsburg and women’s rights lawyers, Ginsburg said. “My life was never in danger,” said Ginsburg. But went Marshall went into a southern state to argue a case, he “did not know whether he’d be alive or dead at the end of the day.”
Ginsburg was the first women of the Jewish faith to be elevated to the Supreme Court. She remarked on the irony of today’s court, which has three Jews (Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer are the others) compared to a time just a few decades ago, when one Jewish member of the nine-member tribunal was considered revolutionary.
Selya recounted that shortly after Ginsburg's Supreme Court confirmation, he visited her in her chambers. At the time, Temple Beth-El Rabbi Leslie Gutterman had been lobbying Selya to try to urge his friend Ginsburg to speak at the Providence temple. But when Selya saw her that day he hesitated to ask Ginsburg because she said that she had a drawer full of more than 200 requests to appear ay synogogues.
She ended her chat by recounting her friendships with justices who were conservatives – Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia. Ginsburg recounted the support she received from O’Connor, like Ginsburg a cancer survivor, when Ginsburg battled colorectal cancer in 1999.
Scalia and Ginsburg were a sort of high court odd couple. A boisterous, partisan Italian-American conservative man known for his biting opinions and dissents on the bench, Scalia nonetheless became quite friendly with the Jewish, cerebral, liberal Ginsburg.
They connected over the law, humor and their mutual devotion to the opera, she said.
Ginsburg lamented the hyper-partisanship and divisiveness that suffuses the U.S. Congress and American politics. She recalled than when her high court confirmation was voted on, just three senators voted against her, despite her affiliation with the ACLU. Breyer, a former top aide to Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, also collected more than 90 Senate votes for confirmation. Saclia was confirmed unanimously.
But in Barack Obama’s last year as president, the Republicans who controlled the U.S. Senate refused to even give Obama’s choice, Merrick Garland, a hearing on his nomination.
Ginsburg called for a return to bipartisanship, for which she received applause. But the biggest cheers of the evening came when Selya referenced the actress Kate McKinnon, who plays the 84-year old Ginsburg as a buff workout fanatic on Saturday Night Live.
The hope of many, said Seyla, was that Ginsburg’s health and fitness will cause her to remain on the court, “throughout at least the present administration,” provoking wide applause.