Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a packed crowd in Raleigh Monday night that the politicization of the Supreme Court is a trend that needs to stop.
In 1993, when the U.S. Senate confirmed her to fill a seat on the Supreme Court, only three senators voted against her, she said, including the late North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms. Today, most confirmations are bitterly divided.
“I hope I live to see the day when we go back to the way it was, and the way it should be,” said Ginsburg, who is 86.
Ginsburg, speaking to more than 1,600 people at Meymandi Hall in downtown Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, earned a round of applause. She was in Raleigh for Meredith College’s 2019 Lillian Parker Wallace Lecture. More than a lecture, Ginsburg took part in a conversation about her life with Suzanne Reynolds, former dean of Wake Forest University Law School, from her beginnings to her current role as a justice and a pop culture icon.
Her comments come at a time when the Supreme Court is highly politicized. That includes Republicans’ stonewalling of Democratic President Barack Obama’s nominee to replace the late Antonin Scalia in 2016 as well as controversial court-packing proposals some Democratic presidential candidates support.
Although Ginsburg and Scalia were rarely on the same side in controversial cases — she being one of the more liberal members of the court and he one of the more conservative — they were friends. Ginsburg said Monday she hopes the mutual respect between judges continues, for the sake of the court’s reputation.
“Every justice wants the court to be in as good shape when that justice leaves as it was when the justice entered,” she said. “And to do that we have to be collegial.”
Ginsburg, who rose to prominence fighting for gender equality before becoming a judge, focused mostly on advancements women have made in the law and in society at large. She said when she was a student at Harvard Law School in the 1950s, women had only recently been allowed to even attend law school. And some professors thought no women should be there at all.
She then spent decades waging court battles against laws that, in her words, “divided the world into separate spheres so the man was the breadwinner and the woman took care of the home and the children.
“And if someone didn’t stick to that proper role, they would be disadvantaged,” she said.
Women join the US Supreme Court
She later became the second woman to join the Supreme Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor, with whom she served until O’Connor’s retirement in 2006. No other woman joined the court for three more years until Sonia Sotomayor was nominated by Obama in 2009.
Ginsburg said those years when she was the lone woman on the court were her hardest because of all the school children she saw touring, who saw an institution still dominated by men.
“They saw eight rather well-fed men, and this rather small woman,” Ginsburg said.
The line went over well with the nearly all-female audience, most of whom are students, faculty or alumni of Meredith College, a Raleigh school that admits only women as undergrads.
Ginsburg said now having three women on the nine-person court today is “tremendously important for the public perception of the court.”
Ginsburg’s speech came less than a month after she finished three weeks of chemotherapy, which NPR reported was treatment for a cancerous tumor on her pancreas.
Ginsburg walked out with assistance Monday but didn’t appear to have any mental fog, quoting old court rulings from memory and making jokes. Her jokes ranged from topics like dating in the ‘50s to how she used to sleep only two hours a night when she was a young attorney.
”I’m 86 years old now so it’s not as easy as it used to be,” she said. “And I live in deadly fear of falling asleep on the bench.”
Will things get better?
In ending her speech, she encouraged the audience to not just focus on their careers, but to help the community around them. She said while many are worried about the current state of the U.S., she believes that things will always get better.
As proof of that belief, Ginsburg said her mother raised her to be an ambitious, self-sufficient woman. But to her mother’s generation, that meant maybe being a high school history teacher — not one of the most influential judges in the nation.
“As bleak as things may seem, I have seen so many changes in my lifetime,” Ginsburg told the crowd. “And opportunities open for people whatever race, religion and, finally, gender.”
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