Ginsburg holds court at Amherst College

AMHERST — Amherst College hosted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Thursday evening, where the sitting Justice met with the college community to discuss topics ranging from the issues the country faced in the beginning of her judicial career to how Americans can navigate current and future political trials.

The crowd did not hide its excitement for Ginsburg’s appearance — some students sat up and gasped as an announcement kicked off the night’s programming, and Ginsburg was met with a lengthy standing ovation and loud cheers as she took the stage. The event was originally set to be held at Johnson Chapel, but was moved to the Coolidge Cage gymnasium to accommodate more students.

Ginsburg, 86, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, becoming the second woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest court, and is now seen by many as an icon in progressive politics. Her 26-year tenure so far has seen a number of landmark cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges, a 2015 case making marriage equality a constitutional right. Her influence has also extended to pop culture, where she has inspired an opera, Saturday Night Live skits, and earned the moniker “Notorious RBG.”

But before she became “a symbol of liberalism in America today,” as one audience member told Ginsburg during the event, she began her law career during a much different time. Cornell University, where Ginsburg earned her bachelor’s degree, had a 4:1 ratio of men to women when she attended. And when Ginsburg began her Harvard Law School education in 1956 — just six years after the program began accepting women — she was among nine women in a class of about 500. After graduation, discriminatory policies persisted.

“In the day when there was no restriction on discrimination in employment, employers felt very comfortable putting up sign-up sheets that said men only,” Ginsburg said.

The event was held as a conversation with Amherst College President Biddy Martin, followed by an audience question-and-answer session.

“I’ve often said, what’s the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district — which my mother was — and a Supreme Court justice?” Ginsburg said. “The difference is one generation. The difference between the opportunities eventually opened to me, and much more restrictive opportunities available to my mother.”

Ginsburg spoke of several people who influenced her earlier in life, such as civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray, who fought against racial discrimination as early as the 1940s; Dean Dixon, an African-American conductor who inspired her early love of opera, and who she described as “kind of the Jackie Robinson of conducting” in overcoming discriminatory barriers; and her former literature professor, author Vladimir Nabokov, whom she credits as a significant influence in teaching her how to write.

An explicit influence in embarking upon a law career came about with the rise of McCarthyism in the 1940s and ’50s, which she saw as a dangerous straying from basic freedom-of-expression values.

“My constitutional law professor wanted me to see that there was something very wrong with what was going on,” Ginsburg said. “That we were straying from our most basic values — that is, we have the right to think, speak and write as we believe, and not as Big Brother, government tells us is the right way to think, speak and write.”

Her professor told her that lawyers were advocating for those being persecuted under McCarthyism, and Ginsburg “got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to do,” as it provided the opportunity for both a paying job and the opportunity to make a difference.

“Rampant discrimination on the basis of race, gender,” remains in today’s society, Ginsburg said, although it more commonly appears as “unconscious bias.”

But at this point, Ginsburg said, “the changes I’ve seen in my long life make me optimistic for the future.”

Ginsburg also drew laughter from the audience throughout the night, and in a lighter moment, spoke to her nickname, “Notorious RBG,” in response to an audience question about “the expectation to be a hero figure.”

“People ask me, weren’t you surprised that the name a student chose for you, ‘Notorious RBG,’” was the name of a famous rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.?’ And I said, I wasn’t at all surprised,” Ginsburg said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

“The two of us had something very important in common,” Ginsburg said. “This is, we were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.”

Ginsburg also commented that she would be “a great diva” when asked if she could choose any other career aside from being a lawyer, judge, or Supreme Court justice, although she said that “a diva career was not an option” because she is a monotone.

But the question-and-answer session with the audience also saw Ginsburg field questions involving thoughtful and sometimes heavy subjects, including her most significant Supreme Court cases, the influence of her Jewish heritage and status as a first-generation college student, and climate change.

On some subjects, such as climate change, Ginsburg said that the Supreme Court is a reactionary body that “depends on the people who care about an issue bringing the case to court.”

When asked about the Supreme Court’s role in smoothing political turbulence in general, Ginsburg also said the court “doesn’t have an agenda of its own,” although she said that she still thinks of herself as an advocate.

At the closing of the event, Ginsburg harked back to the basic rights of freedom of expression as she voiced her hopes for an equal rights amendment.

“When I take out this pocket Constitution, which I take everywhere I am in the world,” Ginsburg said as she procured a small version of the text, “I would like to be able to say to my granddaughters, the equal stature of men and women is as basic to our society as freedom of speech.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.

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