At RWU Law, Ginsburg Emphasizes The Expansion Of Legal Rights

Jan 30, 2018

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Talks with U.S. Appeals Court Judge Bruce Selya.
Credit Ian Donnis / RIPR

Admirers of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the pint-sized 84-year-old Supreme Court justice, know her as the "Notorious RBG." And Ginsburg did not disappoint while speaking to an auditorium filled with a few hundred law students at Roger Williams University on Tuesday.

The expansion of legal rights over time for women, blacks, gays and other groups was a common theme in Ginsburg’s remarks.

“Think of how it was in the beginning, in 1787 when the original Constitution was adopted," she said. "It starts out ‘We the people,’ and who are we the people in 1787? White, male and property owners.”

Ginsburg said America still remains marked by racial segregation. But she pointed out that the composition of ‘We the people’ has grown over time.

“So it now includes the people left out at the beginning," she said. "People who were held in human bondage. Native Americans were not counted in We the People. And half the population – women. So the idea of an embracive society that not simply tolerates but appreciates differences. I think, is what has made our nation great.”

Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by former President Bill Clinton in 1993. She said a ruling expanding gay rights was one of the most impactful cases during her time on the bench.

Ginsburg talked about her Odd Couple-style friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. She also steered clear of making remarks about President Trump, even when U.S. Appeals Court Judge Bruce Selya -- who directed the conversation -- made a good-natured attempt to draw Ginsburg out on the subject.

“Kate McKinnon, who portrays you on Saturday Night Live, has pictured you as a vitamin-chugging weight-lifting person who is determined to survive the Trump administration," Selya observed, to laughter and applause from the audience of law students.

Ginsburg responded by saying how the comedian McKinnon has the same last name as a legal scholar who helped make the law of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The justice received applause throughout her dialogue with Selya -- including when she described feeling "fine" after having faced two bouts with cancer.

Ginsburg is the eighth sitting or former U.S. Supreme Court justice to speak at RWU Law, starting when Anthony Kennedy gave the school's first commence address, in 1996.

Her appearance, and another later in the day at Temple Beth-El in Providence, came on the same day when President Trump is delivering his State of the Union address. Ginsburg has in the past been critical of Trump, calling him a "faker."

Ginsburg was asked about the bitter hyper-partisanship that has gripped Washington for years. In some cases, judicial appointments have been blocked by partisan politics.

Ginsburg responded by saying it will take great leaders to move the country past hyper-parisanship. But she pointed to how the U.S. overcame the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, and said she’s optimistic than American politics will eventually regain more civility.