I must have seen everyone I know in Princeton standing in a line in front of Richardson on the Thursday before break. I clutched an orange ticket as I joined the end of this line, which looked likely to stretch into the middle of University Place. One might well wonder what on Earth my computer science professor, my shrink, the weird freshman girl who lives near me, and one of the editors of this very fine publication—in addition to maybe 800 other people—were doing in the same line. The answer: that Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was addressing the crowd on “The Lighter Side of the Supreme Court.”
The second woman to serve on the Court and the last of Bill Clinton’s appointees, Justice Ginsburg built her legal career on the fight for women’s rights and was instrumental in a number of ACLU-led fights—but on Thursday she was here to avoid all that. Instead, she talked about how the Justices greet each other at the beginning of the workday (a grand total of 36 handshakes), Justice Scalia-led choruses of “Happy Birthday,” a form letter written by her husband, and lunchtime discussions about art and opera (funny how no one slings around the “elitist” label when talking about the Supreme Court). Subsequently, she was interviewed by University Provost Christopher Eisgruber, and answered a few audience questions—which varied greatly in quality and relevance.
The audience was eager for Justice Ginsburg to get into politics. The Justice is liberal and her audience was a match: left-leaning and leaning forward, the crowd listened intently as Justice Ginsburg discussed her activist history or expressed views on various political issues. Some of the audience questions sought Justice Ginsburg’s opinion on highly politicized topics of judicial policy. But she was determined to avoid any ideological divisiveness, emphasizing constantly her respect for and cordiality towards her colleagues. If the “lighter side” talk were someone’s introduction to the Supreme Court, they might have a distorted perception of the impact of twice-yearly dinners for the extended Supreme Court “family” (justices, their families, and the families of retired and deceased justices) on the American political system.
The only case that Justice Ginsburg mentioned voluntarily was Bush v. Gore, and when she did I could sense the assembled holding their breath in hope of hearing a condemnation of her colleagues and of the presumption of the Bush administration. However, the case was only a vehicle for Justice Ginsburg to relate an anecdote of professional cordiality: while she was working late on her opinion, Justice Scalia called her to urge her to go home and take a hot bath.
As disturbing as the image of a Supreme Court justice in the bathtub may be (especially when another Supreme Court justice is mentioned in the same sentence), the attempt to remove politics from discussion of the Court, especially given the election atmosphere, was striking. From Justice Ginsburg’s anecdotes, the nine Justices seem to be like any group of cultured, intelligent older people, who delight in the opera and their grandchildren and do a wide range of charitable work—except, of course, that they have the power to affect our country in fundamental ways.
I think it’s common for people my age (and, therefore, probably yours, dear reader) to band together on ideological grounds, and in my limited experience there seems to be a radical divide in campus culture between Leftists and Rightists. Unlike the Supreme Court, they just don’t go to the same parties. So it’s rather extraordinary to me that the Court can change history on a daily basis, and still, well, shake hands 36 times a day.
I was struck, too, by Justice Ginsburg’s intelligence, and by extension the intelligence of her colleagues. The Court is academically-minded, I think; certainly, all the justices have strong intellectual backgrounds. Maybe that explains why they can put aside their differences in order to have a party or two: their duty is not to make an emotional appeal to voters the way a politician must. Their duty is to be scholars, to analyze and interpret a historical document and test its relevance to today’s world. They don’t have to run attack ads or attempt to appeal to blue-collar voters. They can just be their own overeducated selves–perhaps, apart from race and gender integration, not entirely different from the men who wrote the document they now interpret.
This realization gives me hope for the Court. It’s so much easier to respect people with whom you ideologically disagree when you know that there is intelligence and logic behind their reasoning. Justice Ginsburg certainly seemed to have faith in her colleagues’ loyalty to the Constitution. I feel as if, maybe, that’s one less thing to panic about.