Ginsburg to New Students: Pursue Your Passion

September 8, 2016

Most law students — or practicing lawyers for that matter — would consider themselves lucky to encounter a Supreme Court justice during the course of their careers. For several hundred incoming Georgetown Law students, this happened on their sixth day of law school.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to the Law Center on September 7 as the Distinguished Lecturer to the Incoming Class, addressing more than 300 J.D. and LL.M. students in Hart Auditorium.

“The excitement in this community in anticipation of this talk has been great,” said Georgetown Law Dean William M. Treanor, as he introduced Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Court. “When I announced [at Orientation] that Justice Ginsburg would be speaking to you here today…there was an audible gasp, and then wild applause.”

Ginsburg spoke of her 23-year friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in February. Though the pair would differ as judges, their mutual respect endured through a shared love of opera, a sense of humor and a determination to get their judicial opinions as good as they could possibly be. “Whenever I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the majority opinion ultimately released was clearer and more convincing than my initial circulation,” she said. “Justice Scalia honed in on all the soft spots and energized me to strengthen the Court’s decision.”

Ginsburg spoke of her career advocating for gender equality — which alone, as Treanor pointed out, would have solidified her place in history. Cases she worked on as a lawyer (including Reed v. Reed, Frontiero v. Richardson and Weinberger v. Weisenfeld) all contained variants of the same theme, the man as the dominant partner. “What we wanted to do was to break down that stereotypical view of the world.”

Students also had the opportunity to question the justice. What are the challenges to gender equality today? Unconscious bias and work-life balance. Scalia’s vacant seat on the Court? “I do think that cooler heads will prevail…the president is elected for four years, not three years…maybe some members of the Senate will wake up and appreciate that that’s how it should be.” Cases she hoped had gone the other way? “Read my dissents,” the justice responded, before naming Citizens United and Shelby County v. Holder.

Advice for law students starting their careers? Help those less fortunate, and take advantage of what law school has to offer. “I hope while you are in law school, you will think about what it is you really care about,” Ginsburg said. “Is it the environment? Is it [fighting] discrimination? Is it the way we run our elections? Whatever your passion is, pursue that.”