WASHINGTON — Surrounded by portraits of wise old men, the nation’s second female Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 addressed 26 Cornell-in-Washington students and a delegation of law school deans from the West Bank and Gaza yesterday.
She discussed the operations of the Court and the virtue of its finality. Quoting a former chief justice, Ginsburg said that the Court is esteemed “not because its members are infallible, but because they have the final say.”
At 8,000 petitions of certiorari per year, the volume of cases put before the Court is dizzying. For this reason, Ginsburg explained, the nine justices rely heavily on their clerks to prepare summary memorandums.
“We decide on no more than 100 cases per year, and we give equal attention to each, whether it’s a prisoner petitioning for review or a high-powered firm,” she said.
Since the Court is in recess during the summer months, and has no backlog to its docket, the justices complete all majority decisions by June 1st. “Our chief [Justice William H. Renquist] is very strict about that,” noted Ginsburg.
Of its decisions in a given year, only 25 percent are 5-4 splits among the Justices. “The Press tends to dwell on these decisions, which are often controversial. The most recent example of this is Bush v. Gore,” Ginsburg said, stopping short of elaborating on her feelings surrounding the particular case.
However, 40 percent of the Supreme Court’s annual decisions are unanimous. “I wish the press often gave more attention to that figure,” she said.
Ginsburg also noted the high level of familiarity she feels with the other justices, who refer to each other on a first name basis. “I receive letters from other Justices addressed ‘Dear Ruth,'” she said.
Although political differences exist between them, Ginsburg explained that the Justices strive to use the Constitution as their sole guide rather than relying on partisan interpretations. “They’ll have their debate and they have their partisan feelings but they keep it within the debate. They move beyond that in order to perpetuate the system of justice itself,” Melissa Kossak ’02 observed.
After delivering her speech — which was somewhat generalized because of the foreign delegation present — Ginsburg took questions from listeners. When a dean from Gaza asked under what circumstances could a justice be impeached, she responded with an answer from the Constitution.
“Article III, Section one stipulates that the Judges, both of the supreme and inferior Courts, shall hold their offices during good behavior,” she explained.
Congress has the power to impeach a justice when he or she violates the standard of good behavior. However, Ginsburg said the definition of that standard is vague and up to the interpretation of Congress.
Bret Joshpe ’02 asked if a supreme court nominee that is clearly pro-life would be confirmed by the Senate. “I can’t speak for the Senate,” Ginsburg said. She was also unwilling to comment on other contemporary political issues, such as campaign finance reform.
When offering advice to undergraduates considering going to law school, Ginsberg replied, “make yourself a well-rounded person.”
“Most undergraduates who want to go to law school limit themselves to taking political science courses,” Ginsburg explained. She recalled that the favorite courses she took at Cornell were in “music, art history, and a literature course with a professor named Nabokov.”
She discouraged undergraduates from pursuing law only to join corporate firms and generate personal wealth. “For those who seek that option, it’s there,” Ginsburg said, but she believed that the most important thing one can do with a career is to give back to one’s community. “Stay involved,” she said.
Aliza Balog ’02 regretted not asking a question yesterday. “I was interested to know if she faced any difficulties being a female in a then-mostly male profession. I also wonder if she thinks the court should be more gender-balanced given that women compose more than 50 percent of the population.”
Stephanie Harris ’02 enjoyed Ginsburg’s comments on her undergraduate experience. “I liked her perspectives on Cornell, how she advised us to take a broad range of courses, and how a specific professor helped her to change her writing style. It made me feel good about my major.”
Mike Silberman ’03 considered Ginsburg’s words largely “peripheral.”
“I didn’t think that anything she said I couldn’t have heard from a non-justice,” he said. “But I enjoyed seeing her in person.”
Archived article by Ken Meyer