U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during a visit to Stanford University on Monday. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
PALO ALTO – What makes a meaningful life for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
“To put it simply, it means doing something outside yourself,” she said Monday night at Stanford’s Memorial Church, in conversation with the university’s The Rev. Professor Jane Shaw, dean for religious life.
“I tell law students … if you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill — very much like a plumber,” she said. “But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself … something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”
Welcomed with thunderous applause, she opened by reading from her book, citing relationship advice (“sometimes it helps to be a little deaf”), her father-in-law’s career advice (“you will find a way”), raising children (“I returned to the law books with renewed will”) and her devotion to her husband (“without him, I would not have gained a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.”)
The 83-year-old did not volunteer her opinion about President Donald Trump’s nomination of Colorado federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, nor the legal controversies over the administration’s temporary immigration ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. Last summer she drew criticism, and later apologized, for saying she feared for the country and the court if Trump was elected.
But she mourned the loss of collegiality that was once part of Capitol Hill.
“I wish there was a way I could wave a magic wand and put it back when people respected each other, and voted for the good of the country and not just along party lines. Someday there will be great representatives who will say ‘Enough of this nonsense. … I hope that day comes when I’m still alive.”
When asked what she would like to change: “the electoral college!”
She decried the death penalty, saying “If I were queen, there would be no death penalty,” but praised the nation’s recent reduction of executions.
The oldest justice by more than three years, and one of the four reliably liberal jurists on the court, a student teased her about eating more kale. Then she was asked: Who she would like to see eat kale? “Justice Kennedy!” she deadpanned.
Ginsburg’s lecture is part of a series created in memory of late Stanford law professor Harry Rathbun, who delivered his distinguished “Last Lecture” every year from the 1930s to the 1950s. In years in which a lecture is scheduled, the Office for Religious Life chooses a speaker to visit campus and talk about the various paths to building a meaningful life.
Previous iterations of the lecture featured former Secretary of State George Shultz, the 14th Dalai Lama, Oprah Winfrey and Ginsburg’s former colleague on the Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor. The lecture was established by The Foundation for Global Community.
She spoke fondly of former justice O’Connor, calling her “as close to being a big sister to me as one could wish for.” O’Connor, who survived breast cancer, advised Ginsburg after chemotherapy treatment for colorectal cancer: “Be sure to get it for Friday so you can get over it during the weekend.”
In a far reaching conversation, she cited music she couldn’t live without: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.” She confided her childhood role models: Amelia Earhart and the fictional heroine Nancy Drew. She recounted a New Year’s Eve dinner with late Justice Antonin Scalia, when her husband struggled to find a good recipe for wild boar.
She described her attitude toward combating cancer: “Never have a defeatist attitude … and I’m going to surmount this.” The most important person in her life? “My personal trainer,” she joked.
To the delight of the crowd, Ginsburg showed off her tote bag with the motto: “I dissent.”
When asked, 100 years from now, how she would like to be remembered:
“That I was a judge who worked as hard as she could to the best of her ability — to do the job right.”
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