A Visit with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
October 1, 2014
By Roslyn Zinner
I had the rare opportunity to meet and talk with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with ten other people, in her chambers. Two years ago I attended a synagogue silent auction and someone was offering a tour of the Supreme Court and private small group meeting with Justice Ginsburg. I was the only bidder, at $75, and won the "item." The person offering it, David Levy, an attorney who is a member of the Supreme Court Bar and has a connection to Justice Ginsburg, became very ill and we assumed it would not happen. A month ago he called and said he was setting it up and we could bring five people total. We invited my aunt Roz Ehudin, a retired Baltimore school teacher, and my uncle, Irv Ehudin, and a lawyer/mediator friend, Carren Oler, to come with me and my husband, David Zinner. All of us were very excited in anticipation. Others in the group who toured and met with the Justice were a Philadelphia judge for family law court, the former president of George Washington University, a father's rights activist, a female law student, and two lawyers who are members of the Supreme Court Bar.
Before we met Justice Ginsburg we toured both the public and private parts of the Supreme Court building with a docent. We went inside the Supreme Court basketball court, which is right above the Court Chamber. Use is only allowed when Court is not in session! There is also a gym open to staff. We saw the justices' private dining rooms and conference rooms, the law library, an elegant multi-purpose room, and walked several floors of the seven story circular marble stairway, a gorgeous structure.
Justice Ginsburg was dressed fashionably in a blue dress with a bright necklace and pashmina shawl, and said her next appointment that day was with the Finnish justice minister. She stood, as did we, for the entire 45 minutes, in her office, surrounded by a huge number of photos on the walls, art in every possible space, large glass art pieces, awards from the Glamour Society, knick knacks of all kinds, and of course books. We were greeted warmly by her two assistants, who have been with her for over twenty years.
Justice Ginsburg was very soft spoken, warm, and open to answering questions. She proudly showed us a photo of her toddler granddaughter (or great grand?).
Here were as many of the questions from the group and responses as I recall:
1. Tell us about the office we are standing in.
"This was Justice Thurgood Marshall's office; you can see his photo on the wall". Justice Ginsburg referred to him reverently, and stated that he is a role model and inspiration for her. Thus the Justice said she felt very lucky to be in the same office he had used. Previously she had started out on an upper floor but asked to be moved into this office, which is in the hall where the other justices' offices are located. "Justice Kagan was one of his clerks".
2. Which decision are you most proud of?
"That's like asking me to choose between my children...there have been so many...I would have to say the Lilly Ledbetter case. " She described how the length of time from the original discrimination was used as an argument (unfairly). She said she felt that her dissent made a contribution to the eventual passage of legislation that provided for women being treated more fairly in the workplace.
3. Which decision of the Court since your tenure do you think will have the most impact on the country?
""Citizens United" but in a negative way." She expressed hope that once the impact got bad enough other justices would see it differently. She later referenced it as part of the problem with legal decisions about interpretation of the Second Amendment, the power and money of the lobby [gun].
4. When you and Justice Scalia go to the opera together, what do you talk about?
"We don't, we're listening to the music...during the intermission we might talk about how good the tenor was." She mentioned there will be a play coming out in the spring called "The Originalist" which will be about Scalia and a (fictional) African American female liberal law clerk. Asked if she would go see it, she said yes emphatically she would go see it, but she was just as sure "Scalia won't." She said she would report back to the other justices after the performance.
5. What is it like to have different law clerks every year?
She finds her clerks from recommendations from people she trusts. "Some I'd like to keep forever and others, well..." She noted they do a huge and valuable amount of work, but they do not make decisions.
6. How does your Jewish background influence or inform how you look at the law or the Constitution?
"Well, each of us draws from who we are and our background." She knows she draws from that heritage as well as being female and other aspects of her identity, as do other justices draw from their heritage. She said her Jewish background influences her because of the tremendous value Jews place on education, learning and law.
7. What issue do you think will be most important twenty years from now?
"You could probably guess that better than me." She said that global warming and the environment are some of the most important issues that will come before the Court in years to come. She indicated she is working on knowing more about this to be up to speed as those cases emerge at the highest court level.
She also talked about privacy and the new electronic world being a challenge to navigate as we become more and more technologically advanced in communication. She cited the case of a police officer who in a car stop searched the contents of the cell phone in the driver's pocket. Previous to cell phones the search could include items in the vehicle, but the justices decided unanimously that the cell phone contents were private and was not the same as other items. Asked how it felt when the Court ruled unanimously, she said, "Good."
8. Does the Supreme Court have any communication with the International Court of Justice (ICJ)?
No, but she explained that in the case of a Mexican national in the U.S. who was found guilty --- but for whom there was no access to his diplomatic counsel, the US Supreme Court allowed the guilty verdict. The ICJ said the U.S. violated international law. It was not happy with the US Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court was not happy with the International Court of Justice.
9. Roz Zinner handed Justice Ginsburg a gift of a 2015 calendar with Zinner mosaic art on each page.
After seeing Nelson Mandela's portrait on the first page, Justice Ginsburg recommended a book and showed us the cover of a video, "The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter," about another South African hero. The book is by Albie Sachs with a foreword by Desmond Tutu. She also recommended a novel which she read recently, The Things We Used to Say, by Abby Ginzburg,
10. How can we deal with gun violence and the "gun rights" lobby? Is there a possibility of 2nd Amendment cases coming before the Court?
She said unfortunately they have already come before the Court and been decided the wrong way. She said some justices do believe the Second Amendment does not apply just to an organized militia. She said the best hope for passing significant gun control laws could have come from President Reagan, after he was shot, but it did not.
11. You've spoken in interviews about the male justices being out of touch with what it is like for women. Do you try to educate them informally? Do the justices discuss issues informally?
She stated that no, "we don't talk about issues informally, only in the context of a case that brings up a particular issue."
12. Is that a Calder sculpture on the glass shelf behind your desk?
No, that is the award from being named one of the Glamour Women of the Year in 2012.
13. On the Hobby Lobby decision, in which she dissented strongly, and women's reproductive rights:
Justice Ginsburg said that the availability of abortion and other contraceptive services does not so much affect people like you and me; it denies access to poor women who cannot travel to another state. To make change occur for poor women, middle class women need to be "more fired up."
14. On the Court's decision to strike down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and Gay rights:
Justice Ginsburg stated her belief that attitudes have changed because people have discovered they know gay people, and have personal relationships with gay neighbors, siblings, co-workers, etc.
Justice Ginsburg allowed us to take photos of her and with her and smiled when one of the group thanked her for not retiring. One person gave her a book he had written and others got autographs.
Post scrip: David Levy, the attorney who arranged this interview, passed away two months later.