Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has one wish for the Constitution — that the document include an Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee gender equality.
“I take out my pocket Constitution and say, ‘I have three granddaughters,’” she told an audience of 1,400 people who packed Washington, D.C.’s Adas Israel Congregation on Feb. 1. “I point to the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, religion. I would like them to see in the Constitution a statement that men and women are persons of equal citizenship stature.”
In a one-hour and 20-minute conversation with Forward Editor-in-Chief Jane Eisner, Ginsberg, 84, was witty and professorial as she spoke about women’s rights, other justices — Jewish and not — and her plans.
Ginsburg said that although explicit gender discrimination had largely faded by the 1970s, when the Equal Rights Amendment was passed by the Senate, it exists in more discreet ways.
“There was a tendency to tune out when a woman was speaking because she couldn’t have been saying anything worthwhile,” she said.
Last month, Ginsburg expressed support for the #MeToo movement, revealing that while a student at Cornell University she was propositioned by a chemistry professor who gave her an advance copy of an exam.
“I knew exactly what he wanted in return,” she told NPR’s Nina Totenberg.
When Eisner asked Ginsburg if she had experienced sexism since then, she said, “Not that kind of sexism,” but she said discrimination remains an issue.
Eisner told Ginsburg that, according to the Harvard Business Review, the Supreme Court’s male justices interrupt female justices three times more than they interrupt each other.
Ginsburg said that sounded accurate, and recalled an oral argument during which she interrupted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, leading to a media frenzy.
“The next day in USA Today the headline, was ‘Rude Ruth Interrupts Sandra,’” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg said she apologized to O’Connor, who said, “Don’t worry, the guys do it all the time.”
Ginsburg said the reporter attended oral arguments the next day and said, “You know, [O’Connor’s] right, but I never noticed it when the men interrupt all the time.”
Ginsburg joked that the real reason she interrupted O’Connor is because her then-colleague on the bench is a slow-talking “laid back gal from the West” and she is a “fast-talking Jewish girl from New York.”
“And he’s not our Lord,” Ginsburg said, referring to Jews and Jesus, respectively.
“I spoke to the chief,” she said. He said the wording was good enough for former Jewish justices Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, Felix Frankfurter and Arthur Goldberg.
“It’s not good enough for Ginsburg,” she said. She was able to change the rule.
A year later, Stephen Breyer became the court’s second Jewish justice. She said the two teamed up to ask Chief Justice William Rehnquist to reschedule arguments in a case that fell during the High Holidays so that they could celebrate the Jewish holidays. Rehnquist obliged.
“The argument that was utterly convincing for the chief was that in an argument, there will inevitably be Jewish lawyers,” she said. “Do you want to take away from them the opportunity to present their case? And that resonated. So now we don’t sit on the High Holy Days.”
Asked how her Judaism has informed her career, the justice drew on the themes of the Jewish Diaspora as she discussed how her parents had immigrated to the United States from Europe.
“The sense of being an outsider, of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for no sensible reason … it’s the sense of being part of a minority,” she said. “It makes you more empathetic to other people who are outsiders.”
People in the audience applauded much of what Ginsburg said as she answered Eisner’s questions.
“She really expressed how she interprets the Constitution and what it means to be human,” said Patricia Hunt, who teaches an introductory law course at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va..
Falls Church, Va., resident Roz Cohen said Ginsburg was “just as wonderful” as she anticipated, and appreciated her comments on gender discrimination.
“In these times, you think you’ve won all these battles, but the same old issues come around again, so I was glad that she pointed that out,” she said.
Although Ginsburg said she would not discuss cases before the court, she did weigh in on whether Supreme Court justices should have fixed terms rather than the current life term.
“It is a subject on which I am biased and prejudiced,” she said, eliciting applause from the friendly crowd when she said she has no plans to retire from the court.
“As long as I can do the job, I’ll be here.” PJC
Dan Schere writes for Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.