Disagreements at Supreme Court Confined to Opinions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg '59 Says

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New York, June 20, 2009
– After reading some of the Supreme Court’s sharply divided opinions, “collegial” might not be the word that comes to mind when talking about the justices.

But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59 said it is actually the best way to describe the court on which she has served since 1993.

“It’s the most collegial place I have ever worked,” Ginsburg said during an appearance at Columbia Law School’s Reunion 2009. “We all genuinely care about each other.”

Ginsburg, whose Class of 1959 is celebrating its 50th reunion, gave as an example her bout with colorectal cancer 10 years ago and, more recently, with pancreatic cancer. “Everyone wanted to do whatever they could to help me,” she said.

Of course, caring about someone and joining in their opinion are often mutually exclusive at the court. Still, Ginsburg said the ideological fault lines there may not be as acute as some people assume.

“We agree more often than we disagree,” she said. “There are more unanimous opinions … than there are 5-4 splits. But we do divide sharply on many important issues.”

Because of that, she said the public campaign by Chief Justice John Roberts to get the court to achieve consensus more often may be “overly optimistic.”

Ginsburg was asked about her relationship with Justice David Souter, who will retire at the end of this term. “All of us love him and he loves the work and the collegiality, but he doesn’t love the celebrity that comes with being a Supreme Court justice,” she said.

Ginsburg sits next to Souter on the court. As such, Ginsburg joked he had an important job, especially on occasions when she had worked through the night. “David had the responsibility to give me a slight nudge if it looks like my eyes are closing.”

But she will miss him for other reasons.

“He is as fine a judge as ever there has been,” Ginsburg said. “He gives each case an honest call. He doesn’t try and shove the uncomfortable parts under the rug.”

On other matters:

  • Ginsburg dismissed the “brouhaha” over more-frequent mentions of foreign and international courts in Supreme Court decisions. “When we refer to decisions of other countries’ constitutions we’re doing so not because of … precedent, but because of the quality of the reasoning of the decision.”
  • In discussing other Supreme Court justices with a Columbia connection, Ginsburg spoke of Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, who also served as Dean of the Law School from 1910 to 1923. Despite being a steadfast supporter of civil rights, Ginsburg noted Stone refused to admit women into the Law School. When asked why, “Stone said, ‘We don’t because we don’t.’” Ginsburg went on to become the first tenured female professor at the Law School, where her daughter Jane is currently the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law. It’s believed the two are the only mother and daughter to have taught at the same law school.
  • If Ginsburg had been given the chance to be anything growing up, it would have been an “opera diva,” she said. “I am sad to say that I am what my public-school teachers called a sparrow, not a robin. So the next best thing was to become a lawyer.”

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Video of the Full Speech


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