Wise, Witty, and “Notorious”: Justice Ginsburg in Conversation at the Law School

September 18, 2014

If you want to make Ruth Bader Ginsburg smile, wear clothing based on her social media meme. The U.S. Supreme Court justice has inspired “Notorious R.B.G.,” a Tumblr dedicated to all things Ginsburg. In one image on the site, she is pictured wearing a rakish crown in the style of the rapper Notorious B.I.G.

“Oh, I like your T-shirt,” Ginsburg told an admirer wearing Notorious R.B.G. apparel at Tuesday’s Law School-sponsored question-and-answer session.

It was one of several lighthearted moments during her appearance, part of the Stein Lecture Series. Of course, there were several serious moments as well, including behind-the-scenes details about life on the high court, the parsing of several recent decisions, and a hint on how she might vote on a possible gay marriage case.

Ginsburg, 81, a former American Civil Liberties Union litigator who was appointed by President Clinton in 1993, is one of three women on the Supreme Court. But after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006, the dynamic on the court was rather different.

“It was eight men and one tiny little woman,” Ginsburg said.

With the 2009 and 2010 appointments of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the number of women on the court is the highest it’s ever been. “It looks like we belong there,” Ginsburg said.

Still, when asked what the optimum number of concurrently-serving female justices should be, Ginsburg has a quip at the ready: “My answer is when there are nine.”

Ginsburg provided a mini-tutorial on gender discrimination, recounting details of several prominent cases, including Ledbetter v. Goodyear. After years of working at the tire company, Lilly Ledbetter learned she was earning hundreds of dollars less per month than the lowest-paid male manager. She sued under Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act, but when her case reached the Supreme Court, Ledbetter lost by a 5-4 vote.

In an unusual move, Ginsburg read a summary of her dissenting opinion from the bench, urging Congress to make it easier to sue for past discrimination. Shortly thereafter, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 became law.

When asked when the court might consider a gay marriage case, she cited the “Ginsburg Doctrine,” a self-imposed rule that prevents her from speculating on future votes. However, Ginsburg remarked, “It’s remarkable how the attitudes of people in this country have changed.”

Professor Robert A. Stein (’61), who endowed the Stein Lecture Series, moderated the discussion. He began by asking Ginsburg several informal questions, including one about what her hypothetical dream job might be. The justice’s answer revealed a secret urge to leave the legal spotlight for the opera stage.

“If I had any talent God could give me, I would be a great diva,” she said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation at the Law School

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation at the Law School

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