Asked which Supreme Court ruling she would most like to see changed, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew quick and enthusiastic applause from a Hill Auditorium audience Friday with her unequivocal answer: Citizens United.
She said the 2010 ruling striking down limits on federal campaign contributions from corporations and unions shows the United States now has “all the democracy money can buy.”
“I think the time will come, not too far down the line, when the people are disgusted with this and the pendulum will swing the other way,” said the 81-year-old associate justice, who has served on the high court since 1993.
She delivered the 2015 Tanner Lecture on Human Values, which took the form of a conversation with two of her former law clerks — Kate Andrias, assistant professor of law, and Scott Hershovitz, professor of law and philosophy. They questioned her on topics ranging from groundbreaking gender-equality cases to family life to her nickname, Notorious R.B.G.
In his introduction, President Mark Schlissel called Ginsburg “one of history’s most important legal pioneers and advocates for gender equality and justice for all.”
Ginsburg described how her choice of a legal career grew out of two things. First, during the McCarthy era of the 1950s the country had “strayed from its basic values,” but lawyers were among those working to counteract that. “It was a profession, but it was also something that armed you with the skills to help make things a little better for other people.”
Secondly, as a newly married graduate of Cornell University, she and her husband, Martin, decided that whatever they were to do next, it would be done together. They looked to Harvard, where the business school did not admit women, but the law school did.
“So business school was eliminated and that left law school. I have to say, my family had some reservations about this, because there weren’t many legal employers who were willing to take on a woman,” said Ginsburg, who more than 30 years later would become the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. But since she was now married, she said, “Their feeling was, if she wants to be a lawyer, let her try. If she doesn’t succeed she’ll have a man to support her.”
While singling out Citizens United v. FEC as the ruling she’d most like to overturn, Ginsburg, who has become known in recent years for vigorous dissents, said she “can’t pick out just one” of them to be the most important.
She discussed her minority positions in the Hobby Lobby case that determined corporations with religious owners cannot be required to cover contraception through company insurance plans, the Lilly Ledbetter income inequality case, and the decision to invalidate key segments of the Voting Rights Act.
Ginsburg cited the Ledbetter case as an example where an issue lost in the Supreme Court, but ultimately saw victory after Congress subsequently changed the law to make it easier for women to sue over unequal pay.
“I always hope that most of my dissents will be the law someday,” Ginsburg said.
Asked whether the federal judiciary should have fixed terms rather than lifetime appointments, Ginsburg said she thought a constitutional amendment to enable that change would be difficult to pass.
She speculated that life tenure for federal judges is not something that greatly excites the public, “but, of course, I’m probably terribly biased.”
There have been suggestions that Ginsburg step down, thereby allowing President Obama to nominate her successor and presumably maintain a liberal seat on the court, which now features a 5-4 split favoring conservatives.
She cited former Justice John Paul Stevens, who has remained active as an author since his retirement at age 90 in 2010, as an example that age need not preclude an active professional life.
“I’ve said as long as I can do the job full steam, I’ll stay in it. But when I begin to slip, as inevitably I will, that will be the time to go,” Ginsburg said.
She also said she finds “wonderfully amusing” her Notorious R.B.G. nickname and the Tumblr project that launched it. “When it started, my law clerks had to tell me about Notorious B.I.G.,” the late rapper from whom the name was adopted.
Before her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, Ginsburg became known for her advocacy of women’s rights, helping launch the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1971 and argued before the Supreme Court in several landmark cases, which she detailed in her talk at U-M.
“The great thing about the ’70s is we never had to look for plaintiffs. They were all out there,” she said.
She said she remains disappointed that the U.S. Constitution does not contain a specific equal rights amendment.
“Every constitution in the world written after World War II has a statement to the effect of women and men are persons of equal citizenship stature,” she said.
“I would like to take my Constitution out and show it to my three granddaughters and say, this is about how in our society, just like free speech, the equality of men and women, their equal citizenship stature is a basic tenet of our society.”