BRISTOL, R.I. — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Tuesday told a packed room of law students here that she hopes the country will get past its current state of bitter partisan gridlock.
Speaking during an event at Roger Williams University School of Law, the 84-year-old liberal icon said she fears the public will come to view the federal judiciary as “just another political branch of government” where judges will decide cases based on party affiliation.
“We have a great federal judiciary,” she said during remarks at the Honorable Bruce M. Selya Appellate Courtroom. “I hope we can keep it.”
Selya, an appellate judge in Boston, moderated the talk and noted that Ginsburg was confirmed by a 96-3 vote when Bill Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court in 1993 , whereas the last four Supreme Court nominees have all received at least 30 “no” votes in a Senate sharply divided along party lines.
Ginsburg said there was “truly a bipartisan spirit” to the nomination process when she was under consideration, with Republican Senator Orrin Hatch emerging as her “biggest supporter” on the Judiciary Committee.
“Someday I hope we will get back to the way it was,” Ginsburg said. “I think it will take great leaders on both sides of the aisle to say, ‘Let’s stop this nonsense and start working for our country the way we should.’”
Speaking more broadly about partisan animosity in the current national discourse, the justice said, “My hope really is that we will get over this period.”
Ginsburg drew parallels between the current state of affairs and the Red Scare of the 1950s, when Senate investigators went to great lengths to ferret out communist sympathizers in the United States, fostering a climate of distrust and forcing lawyers to publicly defend the First and Fifth Amendment rights of citizens.
The country, she said, moved on from that painful period, which gives her hope that today’s situation will improve.
“We have something so wonderful in this nation, this democracy that exists,” Ginsburg said. “It would be tragic to lose it.”
She said she’s heartened by some lawmakers who’ve cultivated “good working relationships” with colleagues across the aisle, giving a shout-out to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a liberal politician who ranks among the most polarizing members of Congress.
Warren’s reputation notwithstanding, Ginsburg said she was encouraged to see the senator “getting along with a Republican colleague” during a recent meeting in Washington.
The talk was also punctuated by a few light moments, including when Selya praised “Saturday Night Live” actress Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of Ginsburg as a “vitamin-chugging, weight-lifting” judge who’s “determined to survive the Trump administration.”
Ginsburg did not respond with a direct comment about the president but said McKinnon shares a name with the plaintiff in a landmark sexual harassment case.
Trump faced criticism during the 2016 presidential campaign when a leaked recording surfaced of him bragging about groping women.
Asked by Selya how she’s currently feeling, Ginsburg said, “I feel fine,” prompting rapturous applause from the crowd.
“I attribute my good health to my personal trainer,” she said, adding that a portion of the “RBG workout” will appear in a forthcoming documentary about her life and work.
Ginsburg recently hired law clerks to take her through June 2020, just four months before the next presidential election.
She’s currently on a speaking tour during the high court’s recess, trekking from the Sundance Film Festival in Utah to schools and synagogues on the East Coast.
Ginsburg on Tuesday discussed a range of court rulings that led to civil rights advances for women, racial minorities, and the LGBTQ community, adding that “the composition of ‘We, the people’ has expanded” since the constitutional framers, an all-male group of white landowners, enshrined basic liberties in the 18th century.
“The idea of an embracing society that not simply tolerates but appreciates difference is what has made our nation great,” Ginsburg said.
Asked by one student to cite a Supreme Court decision during her tenure that has had the greatest cultural effect, Ginsburg cited the 2015 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.
“I would put that at the top of the list,” Ginsburg said.
The cause of LGBTQ rights, she said, has moved at an accelerated pace in recent years in part because everyday citizens have gay neighbors and relatives.
“There wasn’t that ‘we/they’ ” dynamic, she said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.