At Stanford, Justice Ginsburg says collegiality is not swayed by bitter battles

Ruth Bader Ginsburg met with students and spoke with the university community about the most recent term of the Supreme Court during a visit to Stanford on Constitution Day.

Josh Edelson Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Law Dean Elizabeth Magill

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke with Stanford Law School Dean Elizabeth Magill during a visit to campus Sept. 17.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a speech at Stanford, described the Supreme Court term that ended in June with divisive decisions on gay marriage, voting rights, genetics and affirmative action as, "by any account, both heady and hefty."

But the bitter battles on the bench, the contentious cases and sharp dissents – many penned by her – don't translate to acrimony among the justices, she told the audience at Dinkelspiel Auditorium.

"What holds us together is that we revere the institution for which we work," Ginsburg said. "We know that we must maintain a high level of collegiality."

She said disappointment, dismay and shock at the decisions of her colleagues is "only momentary."

"We know that the institution we serve has a special place in the government of the United States and all of us want to leave it in as good shape as we found it," she said.

The 80-year-old justice spoke on Constitution Day, when public schools and institutions recognize the adoption of the U.S. Constitution with programs about the founding document.

"Her life's work in some ways has been an effort to redeem and make good on the full promises of the Constitution's protections," said Dean Elizabeth Magill of Stanford Law School, which sponsored Ginsburg's visit.

Introducing Ginsburg and describing her work on the court, for the American Civil Liberties Union and as the first female faculty member to hold tenure at Columbia Law School, Magill, who worked as a law clerk for Ginsburg, said: "I think it's no exaggeration to say Justice Ginsburg's work has changed the lives of every generation in this room."

Ginsburg spoke to a capacity crowd for 45 minutes. She responded to questions from the audience following her remarks and attended a reception for the community afterward. Ginsburg also met with a group of Stanford law students earlier in the day and was interviewed by Magill for a story that will appear in the fall issue of Stanford Lawyer magazine.

During her speech, Ginsburg, the leader of the court's liberal wing, highlighted the major cases of the term. She noted the high number of dissents read from the bench – "an uncommon occurrence that occurred a record seven times" – and proudly declared she took the lead on most of those cases.

She drew attention to six cases of the last term, including Fisher v. University of Texas, which dealt with affirmative action; U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which confronted the issue of same-sex marriage; and Shelby County v. Holder, in which the court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Ginsburg, who dissented in the voting case, said it was now up to lawmakers to remedy the "sorely misguided" majority decision.

"Will Congress rise above partisan strife to amend the act?" she said. "I wish I could predict yes. But it is not likely given the inability in the House to take bipartisan action."

Ginsburg was appointed to the court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate 96-3. In response to a question about civility in the confirmation process, Ginsburg recalled her experience and the lack of contention.

"I hope that someday we will get back to civility," she said.

Asked whether being Jewish and a parent influenced the way she approached cases, she said her heritage gave her the perspective of being a minority, and being a mother "taught me patience."

She rationalized not allowing broadcast feeds of oral arguments by saying they would present "a false picture" of a Supreme Court case.

"The problem with seeing them is you're seeing a relatively small part of the appellate process," she said.

People need to understand, she argued, that thousands of documents that include background materials, arguments, legal precedence and comments go into a case. It's not won or lost on the strength of a lawyer's argument before the justices, she said.

Ginsburg left the audience, many of whom were Stanford law students, with some career advice.

After being asked what area of public sector law needed the most help, she told the up-and-comers to pursue their passion, whether that be the environment, privacy or civil rights.

"You've grown old enough," she said, "to care about something important."