U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about a meaningful life

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, delivered the Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life on Monday at Stanford Memorial Church.

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Highlights of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in conversation with Jane Shaw, dean for religious life, at Stanford on Monday.

To live a meaningful life, do something for your community, Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a Stanford audience on Monday evening.

“I tell the law students I address now and then, if you’re going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, well, you have a skill, so you’re very much like a plumber,” Ginsburg told an audience of more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff assembled in Stanford Memorial Church to hear her deliver the “Rathbun Lecture on a Meaningful Life.”

“If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself,” she continued. “Something to repair tears in your community. Something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”

During her opening address, Ginsburg, who received a standing ovation when she walked to the lectern, read the preface of her 2016 book of writings and speeches, My Own Words, the first book she has written since becoming a Supreme Court justice in 1993.

Then Ginsburg sat down in an upholstered chair opposite Jane Shaw, dean for religious life at Stanford, for an on-stage conversation, followed by a Q&A with students. The event capped the end of her first day on campus as the 2017 Rathbun Visiting Fellow.

During her conversation with Shaw, Ginsburg spoke about memorable legal cases on gender equality. She spoke about role models real and fictitious – Amelia Earhart and Nancy Drew – and about pioneering women lawyers and judges who inspired her during her long legal career.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a chair

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Memorial Church (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Ginsburg spoke about a comic opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which was written by Derrick Wang and roughly based on “The Magic Flute,” in which her longtime friend, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, is locked in a room for “excessive dissenting” and she descends through a glass ceiling to rescue him. When she is challenged for rescuing “an enemy,” she counters that he is a dear friend, and while they are different, they are one in their reverence for the Constitution and the institution that they serve.

She also spoke of the importance of collegiality on the Supreme Court of the United States.

“When a justice is of the firm view that the majority got it wrong, she is free to say so in dissent,” Ginsburg said. “I take advantage of that prerogative, when I think it’s important, as do my colleagues. Despite our strong disagreements on cardinal issues – think for example, of controls on political campaign spending, access to the ballot, affirmative action, access to abortion, same-sex marriage – we genuinely respect one another, even enjoy one another’s company. Collegiality is crucial to the success of our mission. We could not do the job the Constitution assigns to us if we didn’t – to use one of Justice Scalia’s favorite expressions – “get over it.” We aim to ensure that when we leave the court, the third branch of government will be in as good shape as it was when we joined it.”

Ginsburg said she is often asked if she has any advice to share.

“I do,” she said. “It comes from my savvy mother-in-law, advice she gave me on my wedding day. ‘In every good marriage,’ she counseled, ‘it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.’ I have followed that advice assiduously, and not only at home through 56 years of a marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

During the Q&A with students, Ginsburg encouraged them to get involved with public interest groups that reflect their passions. When one student asked how she would like to be remembered 100 years from now, she said: “That I was a judge, who worked as hard as she could to be the best of her ability to do the job right.” The audience applauded.

Ginsburg is the 7th person chosen as a Rathbun Visiting Fellow since the program began in 2008. The first six fellows were: retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; former U.S. Secretary of State George P. Shultz; Marian Wright Edelman, founder of The Children’s Defense Fund; His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; cartoonist Garry Trudeau and Oprah Winfrey, producer, actor, global media leader and philanthropist.

The Foundation for Global Community established The Harry and Emilia Rathbun Fund for Exploring What Leads to a Meaningful Life at Stanford University. The fund honors Harry and Emilia Rathbun and their “meaning of life” legacy of helping students experience personal reflection, thoughtful discussion and a deeper exploration of life’s purpose.