Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court are not supposed to make much news, other than when they rule on a case, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg met that requirement Tuesday in a funny, feisty but nonetheless news-free appearance at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Ginsburg, 81, gave no prepared remarks but responded to questions from U of M Law Professor Robert Stein, who is an old friend.
Perhaps the closest she came to news were her remarks about the future of the same-sex marriage. So far, most of the appellate courts that have ruled have struck down bans on such marriages, so the Supreme Court hasn’t had to take a case. Those who are interested in the future of the rulings should pay attention to the Sixth District, which will soon rule, and could create the controversy that will bring the Supreme Court into the picture. Noting the “remarkable change” in gay/lesbian rights over recent years, she attributed it to the willingness of gay and lesbian Americans to “say who they are.”
In other matters, the audience of about 500 learned that Ginsburg:
- Is a huge opera fan, and takes delight in the existence of a comic opera titled “Scalia Ginsburg” based on her relationship with her frequent intellectual opponent, Justice Antonin Scalia.
- Is aware of and seems to revel in the fact she is known to her fans as “The Notorious R.B.G.” based on a tumblr account of that name. The justice acknowledged that she has a supply of “Notorious R.B.G.” t-shirts, and during the Q and A with the audience, a young woman wearing such a t-shirt was recognized.
- Said that the fact that the recent term of the court resulted in an unusually high portion (about 60 percent) of cases decided by unanimous rulings is “misleading,” because the members of the court often “agreed on the outcome but disagreed on how we got there.” She nonetheless described the court as “the most collegial place I’ve ever worked,” noting that before going out into public to hear arguments, every justice shakes hands with all of the others.
- Talked about her dissent in the recent “Hobby Lobby” case, which allowed owners of a company to opt out of the abortion-related provisions of the Obamacare law, based on religious objections of the firms’ owners. The ruling’s “startling breadth” creates a “minefield” going forward, she said, because various religious sects hold such diverse, minority beliefs impacting health care (some sects reject blood transfusions, she said) that the ruling creates a great many ways for employers to opt out of a great many laws.
- Remarked that the members of Congress, who enacted campaign-finance laws, “understand better than judges what money can buy,” and should perhaps be given more deference in allowing laws to deal with the “pernicious effects” of moneyed interests seeking to buy access and influence to lawmakers through campaign contributions.
Ginsburg said she very much welcomed the recent arrivals of two, younger female justices. She noted, archly, that when she and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor were the only two female justices, their colleagues would occasionally address them by one another’s names, even though they were in no way similar other than their gender.
Then O’Connor retired, leaving Ginsburg as the sole female, and, in pictures of the court, you would have all these large men and one tiny woman (Ginsburg is 5’1, slight and frail) “looking like I didn’t belong there.” Now, when a picture of the court is taken with three women and six men, “we look like we belong there” and “nobody calls me Justice Sotomayor.”