AMHERST — Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may be known for thoughtful, finely honed legal opinions, but when asked Thursday what historians will see when they look back on this period in US history, she offered up a terse, two-word answer.
Apart from the warm standing ovation that greeted Ginsburg when she took to the Amherst College stage, that was the only time during her talk that the capacity crowd of 1,600 broke into applause.
Ginsburg was invited to the college by Andrew J. Nussbaum, president of the board of trustees, who previously served as a clerk to Ginsburg. In his introduction, he described that experience as “four years at Amherst packed into one.”
Earlier in the day, Ginsburg gave a lecture and answered questions for a class of about 130 students selected by lottery in a large lecture hall.
But the main event was a fireside chat with Amherst College president Carolyn “Biddy” Martin. Wearing a red shawl, Ginsburg sat on stage with Martin, who asked her about her love for opera, her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, her relationship with her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, her role as a trailblazer for equal rights for women, and her most famous legal rulings.
If those in the audience hoped the famously progressive Ginsburg might venture into the topic of the day — the impeachment inquiry into President Trump and his increasing-ly erratic behavior — they may have gone away disappointed.
Martin certainly tried, posing a question or two that could have led Ginsburg to the topic of politics today. For instance, she asked how the McCarthy era and its assault on free speech compared with what we face today.
But Ginsburg didn’t walk through that door.
About the McCarthy era, she recalled that when she was an undergraduate at Cornell University, a beloved professor who taught zoology was hauled away from class — apparently because of his political leanings.
A constitutional law professor at the time said something was very wrong with that because, Ginsburg recalled, “we have the right to think, speak, and write as we believe and not as Big Brother tells us to think, speak, and write.”
She said that incident left an impression on her. “I got the idea that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to do,” she said. “A paid job where you could make things better.”
The rapport between Martin and Ginsburg was warm and funny at times, as when Ginsburg described her education at Cornell. “There was something not right about Cornell in those days, and one of them was the four to one ratio,” she noted. For every woman there were four men, she said, “And the women happened to be smarter than the men.”
To which Martin replied: “Back then too?”
Other questions from Martin: “What do you think will repair the divisions in our society?”
Ginsburg: “The people in this room gives me hope.”
Martin: “Do you see freedom of speech today under assault?”
Ginsburg: “So far, I think we’re going pretty well in preserving freedom of expression.”
For all the progress made in terms of equality, Ginsburg said, the power of unconscious bias can not be underestimated.
She used her beloved symphony as a case in point. It was not until auditions were held behind curtains, so judges didn’t know who was playing, that the ranks of musicians became more diverse, she said.
“That simple device — the dropped curtain — led to an almost overnight change,” she said. “But we can’t duplicate the dropped curtain in every human endeavor.”
After Martin asked her questions, students got a chance to ask. One inquired what Ginsburg might have become had she not entered the law. Her answer: “A diva.”
Another asked about the rise of extreme political movements around the world.
To that she responded that people often think the bald eagle is a symbol of this nation, but some people think it is a pendulum.
“If it goes too far to the right, it will swing back,” she said. “I’m hoping to see it swing back in my lifetime.”
Laurie Loisel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.