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Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Court, Scalia, and the Notorious B.I.G.

“There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine,” she said to the crowd at Auditorium Theatre.

The Supreme Court justice and beloved internet meme stopped by Chicago last night.   Photo: John J. Kim /Chicago Tribune

Last night, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to a crowd of thousands at the Auditorium Theatre to kick off Roosevelt University’s conference “The American Dream Reconsidered.”

Ginsburg, who has acquired internet-celebrity status over the past few years (in addition to being an influential member of the highest court in the land), talked with Judge Ann Claire Williams about her life and the decisions that led her to becoming the second woman in history to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court bench.

Though the conversation avoided any pointed discussion of present-day politics, Ginsburg spoke at length about the discrimination she’s faced as a woman in the legal field, including early rejections from law firms and being continually mistaken for fellow Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. (“They made T-shirts to help people tell us apart,” she said.)

At one point, when asked whether more women should serve on the court, Ginsburg sighed. “I am often asked this question, and my answer is always yes,” she said. “There will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”

Here are a few other central themes from the talk.

On the politicization of Supreme Court nominees

Approving Supreme Court justices has become more political of late, Ginsburg said, referring to the blocking of Merrick Garland, who was nominated by then-President Barack Obama last year.

“The bipartisan spirit that prevailed in the ‘80s has failed,” she said. “People have begun voting along party lines. It’s a dangerous thing. My hope—and I hope I see it in my lifetime—is that Congress will get over this nonsense and go back to the way it was.”

On her status as a cultural icon

Within the audience, there was a wide array of Ginsburg paraphernalia, including T-shirts, pins, and a hand-knit doll. Though the Notorious R.B.G. said she was initially unfamiliar with the rapper the nickname is based upon, she has come to appreciate the comparison.

“Oh, Notorious B.I.G.?” she said. “It was obvious. We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York.”

On her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia

Ginsburg and Scalia, who died in February of last year, were famously close despite their stark ideological differences—there’s even an opera about their relationship called “Ginsburg/Scalia.” She described him as “a very funny man” and “a great grammarian,” who would sometimes call her to point out small grammar mistakes in her court opinions and dissents. More importantly, she said, reading his dissents helped her to strengthen and refine her own arguments—a lesson she’s carried with her throughout her time on the court.

“[Scalia and I] revered the institution for which we worked,” she said. “It won’t work if you don’t respect your colleagues. And I like most of them.”

On her legacy

Above all, Ginsburg said, the legal field has a responsibility to improve the lives of people in need—in particular, she’s worked to improve women’s rights.

“I hope I am remembered as someone who tried her best with whatever talent god gave her,” she said. “I hope I have helped to make this a place where people can live safely without fear.”

On her future as a Supreme Court justice  

At 84 years old, some have wondered how much longer Ginsburg will remain on the bench—especially given the ideological balance on the current court, with four justices generally leaning liberal and four others on the conservative side (Justice Anthony Kennedy is in the middle, often the wild card). Ginsburg did her best to assuage those fears.  

“The Ginsburg/Scalia opera ends with Scalia’s death,” she said. “I remain on the stage, silent for a moment, and then I say, ‘There’s work to be done. I will remain to do it as long as I can, full steam.’”

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