Justice shares life experiences, answers questions about judiciary role

Many members of the Notre Dame and South Bend communities gathered on September 12 for a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Moderated by Judge Ann Williams, Notre Dame alumna, Board of Trustees member, and current member of the seventh circuit Court of Appeals, the event primarily focused on Ginsburg’s life story.

Williams described Ginsburg’s path from her childhood in New York City to her studies at Harvard Law School, in which she was one of nine women in a class of 500. Ginsburg noted that her birthplace inspired a certain “hunger for success” that she carried with her throughout her entire life.

Ginsburg praised her mother for the advice she gave to her when she was younger and also for her commitment to ensuring the education of her children. Accompanying her to the library each week to get five books, Ginsburg’s mother also gave her valuable life advice such as, “be independent and be a lady,” and “the key to a happy marriage is being deaf to your husband once in awhile”—a counsel that Ginsburg noted also occasionally applies to her relationship with some of her colleagues on the Supreme Court.

The conversation focused extensively on the discrimination that Ginsburg faced in the ’60s and ’70s during her time teaching at Rutgers and seeking employment in a law firm. She stated that her lived experiences with discrimination, more so than rectifying any statutory or constitutional violation, “made me so enthusiastic about the first set of gender equality cases I heard on the court.”

Ginsburg also elaborated on her life with her husband, Marty, and how they both succeeded in law school despite his bouts with cancer. Their first child was also born during those busy years. During her own fight against cancer later in life, Ginsburg noted that it was “my work that saved me.”

Some of the talk involved Williams making pop culture references to Ginsburg’s nickname “The Notorious RBG,” modeled after rapper the Notorious B.I.G., and displaying images of pets wearing tee-shirts featuring her name.

There was almost no discussion or mention of legal, constitutional, or political issues until the question-and-answer session more than an hour and fifteen minutes into the talk.

Of the questions asked, one inquired as to what Ginsburg believes the role of the justices as public figures should be. She stated that they should “help others understand what the court is and the work it does, because the judiciary is not as well known as the executive or legislative branches.”

When asked a question about the role of the judiciary, Ginsburg stated that the judiciary is “a reactive institution … [C]ourts don’t initiate change; people do. If there is a change underway in society, the judiciary can put a stamp of approval on it.” Yet, she noted that citizens should seek change through the legislative process before calling upon the judiciary.

Ginsburg’s visit this year was preceded by visits in previous years from Justices Sotomayor, Alito, and Thomas. The visits of Justices Alito and Thomas were not publicized and were open to specific law school classes, while the visits of Sotomayor and Ginsburg were heavily attended, university-sponsored events with introductions given by Father Jenkins.

Kate Hardiman is a senior PLS major and PPE minor. She enjoys following the Supreme Court and was fortunate to take a law school class on the different constitutional interpretative methods of the current justices last summer in Washington, D.C. Contact her at khardima@nd.edu.