Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discusses constitutional law at law school panel

    Justice Ginsburg often referenced a copy of the U.S. Constitution during the discussion. Photo by the author.

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a crowd of about 200 Northwestern School of Law students, faculty and alumni in Thorne Auditorium Tuesday afternoon that the great pleasure of her judicial career has been using her legal skills to make the lives of others a little better. The justice participated in a three-person panel (with professors Robert Burns and Steven Calabresi) that discussed a range of questions, from the importance of the American Constitution to Ginsburg’s own judicial decisions.

    Flavoring her answers with personal stories and wisecracks, Ginsburg recalled specific court cases but stopped short of carving into details and even deflected tongue-in-cheek questions that she did not want to answer.

    Ginsburg came to Northwestern as a Howard J. Trienens Visiting Judicial Scholar and spent the days leading up to Tuesday’s event teaching classes and meeting with students in the Jewish Law Students Association, the Women’s Leadership Coalition and the Bluhm Legal Clinic, among others. She was one of seven Supreme Court justices to have ever visited Northwestern on the Trienens program.

    “The genius of [the Constitution] [...] is that it is ever becoming more perfect,” said Ginsburg, who held a copy of the Constitution with her and used it numerous times to look up passages. “And ‘We the People’ is ever becoming more inclusive.” She added that she strives to approach each clause of the Constitution not as a sentence “frozen in time,” but as living, evolving laws to govern a living, evolving society.

    Bader has played her own role in perfecting the Constitution, especially as it applies to equal rights. Professor Martin Redish, who introduced her, said that of all the visiting scholars, “none of them have contributed more to the law than [Ginsburg].” Since her days as a trial lawyer, often representing women facing labor discrimination, Ginsburg has served as a law professor and judge, eventually rising to the Supreme Court in 1993. At 76 years old, she is now the second-oldest active justice.

    Though she sat slightly bent and spoke softly, Ginsburg was sharp in recalling details about specific cases but cautious in weighing her words and revealing details about others.

    Law student David Pernas said “there was a skepticism [in some] about her age,” but that her ability to recall dates and facts assured him she was still sharp. Others remembered an intellect that was more visible now than ever.

    “She was incredibly candid and incredibly impressive,” said Logan Wayne, a first-year law student at Northwestern. Valerie Petein, another first-year student, said she was particularly impressed by Ginsburg’s decision on a case about the constitutionality of flying police helicopters above the houses of suspected marijuana growers to monitor heat levels. Ginsburg was part of the opinion that called this tactic a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal search and seizure.

    First-year law student Kate Riordan summed it up by saying she was in awe of Ginsburg’s “general bad-assery.”

    Ginsburg declined to either condemn or embrace Chief Justice John Roberts’ suggestion that the job of a judge is similar to that of a baseball umpire, deciding what falls within the boundaries of the Constitution and what does not. Instead, she suggested another sports metaphor.

    “Sometimes you have to call a foul on the home team.” The metaphor (coined by former Chief Justice William Renqhuist) compares the job of a justice to that of a basketball referee — both must make unpopular decisions when there is enough evidence.

    Only the second female justice and one of seven Jewish justices to serve on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg welcomed another female justice to the court in August when Sonia Sotomayor (also the first Latina to serve) won the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In response to an audience question, Ginsburg addressed Sotomayor’s approval but said she has not offered her advice.

    Sotomayor “does not need any advice,” Ginsburg quipped. Though she said Sotomayor “did call the other day to say ‘I like the robe you are wearing.’”


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