Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Speaks to Georgetown Law 1L, LL.M. Students

September 28, 2018

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to Georgetown Law students in Hart Auditorium on September 26.

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993 — and when her colleague Justice Stephen Breyer was nominated in 1994 — there was “a true bipartisan spirit in our Congress…” she said. The late Senators Ted Kennedy and Strom Thurmond, for example, had a very good working relationship, she noted. “I hope that I will live to see that spirit of collegiality restored in our legislature.”

With Dean William M. Treanor moderating, Ginsburg spoke to Georgetown Law first-year and LL.M. students in Hart Auditorium on Wednesday, September 26. The justice described the cases of the Court’s 2017 Term — “a master class” on last year, Treanor said — before answering presubmitted student questions. Her comments on Congress came following a question regarding the friendship between Ginsburg and her late colleague on the Court, Justice Antonin Scalia.

And though the audience seemed to be collectively holding its breath, Ginsburg’s only statement touching on the current Supreme Court nomination — the evening before the September 27 Kavanaugh-Ford hearings — was praise for retired Justice Anthony Kennedy.

“Just after our closing conference at the end of June, and as a surprise to all of us, Justice Kennedy announced his retirement…” Ginsburg said. “Topping his years on the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, he has served the federal judiciary for 43 years. I will miss the pleasure of his gentlemanly company, his helpful suggestions on circulating opinions…and much more.”

A Master Class

Ginsburg described last year’s term as “momentous,” with “more than the usual number of high profile disputes.” The cases she discussed included Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which the Court concluded that compelling a baker to create a cake for a same-sex couple violated his free exercise of religion (Georgetown Law Professor David Cole, now the national legal director for the ACLU, argued the case on behalf of private respondents Charlie Craig and David Mullins).

In Carpenter v. U.S., the Court held that the government acquisition of a criminal defendant’s historical cell phone records was a Fourth Amendment search requiring a warrant (the work of Georgetown Law Professor Laura Donohue was cited five times by Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent). The justice mentioned the partisan gerrymandering challenge of Gill v. Whitford (argued by Distinguished Professor from Practice Paul M. Smith, Misha Tseytlin (L’06), solicitor general of Wisconsin, and Erin E. Murphy (L’06) for the Wisconsin State Senate as amicus curiae). Although she did not mention all the ties to Georgetown Law, the justice’s late husband, Martin Ginsburg, was a beloved tax law professor at the school.

Ginsburg also discussed Trump v. Hawaii (in which Professor Neal Katyal argued that President Trump’s travel ban — which placed entry restrictions on the nationals of eight foreign states — exceeded the president’s authority). The majority held that the ban did not exceed the scope of the executive’s authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act and also rejected the Establishment Clause challenge.

Ginsburg dissented in the case. “A reasonable observer would truly understand that the proclamation…was prompted by anti-Muslim animus,” she said Wednesday.

Students asked about Ginsburg’s friendship with Justice Scalia; the late civil rights advocate Pauli Murray; the current women’s movement; and more. “Every woman of my vintage has a story or many stories, but we thought there was nothing we could do about it…” she said. “Women nowadays are not silent about bad behavior.”

Marco Turan (LL.M.’19), a lawyer from Ecuador, said that Justice Ginsburg is known and admired in his country. “The background that she has, everything that she’s done for gender equality…it was important to see her because she is [a great] influence,” he said.

“She can think about different approach[es] to a topic, said Nazly Duarte (LL.M.’19), a lawyer from Colombia, who was impressed by Ginsburg’s perspectives, particularly with respect to Scalia, with whom she often disagreed. “As a foreign lawyer, we have classmates from different cultures…her perspective is important,” Duarte said. “It’s a very good example [for us] as lawyers.”

Good Advice

Claire Danberg (L’21) asked the justice for advice on women and careers in the law.

“When I was in fourth grade, I gave a speech on Susan B. Anthony,” Danberg said. “In the eyes of a 10-year-old, complete gender equality had been won with the passing of the 19th amendment almost one hundred years ago. Growing up, I was surrounded by very strong female role models including my grandmother, mother, aunts, and cousins, so it never occurred to me otherwise.

“As I matured, it became apparent to me that, despite my experiences, gender equality was not a fact of life,” she continued. “It is an ongoing battle with warriors like Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the front lines. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to attend law school, to be a social and political vehicle for change. Yet as a woman, I feel this deep internal struggle of how I will be able to balance strong career ambitions with the desire to raise a family. Hearing RBG during my first month of law school, it became clear that if she was able to make it on the Supreme Court while still having children, in the face of gender discrimination I can only imagine, then there is nothing the incoming class at Georgetown cannot accomplish.”

All of RBG’s remarks were empowering, Danberg said, but two pieces of advice stood out the most.

“[Justice] Ginsburg encouraged us to choose a partner who values your career as much as his/her own and who will share equally the responsibility of raising a family. RBG also [reminded] women of the strength in numbers. While one woman speaking up can be written off as a complainer, a united body of women like we see happening with the  “#MeToo” movement cannot be ignored.”