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Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Delivers Tanner Lecture at U-M

Justice Ginsburg: "I Like to Think Most of My Dissents Will be the Law Someday"

She Highlights Key Moments in Legal History During Tanner Lecture


By Katie Vloet
Feb. 6, 2015

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is accustomed to being ahead of her time—and she thinks that her minority opinions in many U.S. Supreme Court cases might be as well.

"I like to think most of my dissents will be the law someday," Ginsburg said to thunderous applause Feb. 6 during the 2015 Tanner Lecture on Human Values at the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Presents U-M Tanner LectureThe justice participated in an engaging and spirited 90-minute conversation during which she spoke about milestones in her own life, as well as key moments in the legal history of the past several decades. She talked about her dissent in the Citizens United case in which the Supreme Court lifted restrictions on campaign finance. Ginsburg said that is the decision she would most want to see overturned. She also predicted that the pendulum would swing and that "there will come a time when people are disgusted" with the increasing influence of money in politics.

(View an image gallery from the event.)

The 81-year-old justice also addressed the question of how long judges should serve. "As long as I can do the job at full steam, I will stay in it. But when I begin to slip, as I inevitably will, when that happens it will be the time to go," she said.

An opera enthusiast, Ginsburg told the audience of more than 3,000 people about an upcoming opera in which the characters are based on her, one of the Court's liberal voices, and Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices on the Court. Scalia/Ginsburg will premiere in Virginia in July. It opens, she said, with a "rage aria" by Scalia in which he asserts his strict-constructionist view of the Constitution. Ginsburg's character then sings an answering aria in which she points out that the Constitution, like society, can evolve. Scalia is later imprisoned in a dark room for "excessive dissenting." She rescues him in dramatic fashion, by breaking through a glass ceiling.

In other portions of the talk:

  • The justice recalled her decision to go to law school in 1956. It was a choice between business school and law school at Harvard, and the former did not admit women at the time. "Business school was eliminated, and that left law school," she said. She was one of nine women in her class (she later transferred to, and earned her degree from, Columbia Law School).
  • She spoke about teaching her first classes on women and gender in the law at Rutgers. To prepare, she read everything about women and the law that had been written—which turned out to be very little. (At Rutgers, she cofounded the first law journal in the country to focus exclusively on women's rights, and later at Columbia, she became the first tenured woman and coauthored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination.)
  • Ginsburg advised those in the audience to "repair tears in your local community" through public service. "Pursue whatever is your passion, in addition to the job for which you are paid," she said. "It will give you satisfaction a paycheck never could."
  • She recounted learning about the popular Notorious RBG Tumblr page and T-shirts that were created as a tribute to her, and having her clerks explain to her who the Notorious B.I.G. was. While she and the rapper have little in common, "we both grew up in Brooklyn," she said.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Presents U-M Tanner LectureGinsburg was the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, following Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and the first female Jewish justice. President Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993. She previously was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a faculty member at Rutgers and Columbia, and founder of the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

This year's Tanner Lecture was presented by the U-M Law School and the U-M Philosophy Department. Ginsburg was interviewed on stage by two of her former law clerks: Scott Hershovitz, professor of law and of philosophy at U-M and director of the Law and Ethics Program; and Kate Andrias, assistant professor of law.

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