Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflects on Supreme Court’s unchanging ‘collegiality’

At UChicago event, Ginsburg expresses hope for return to bipartisan confirmations

After more than a quarter of a century on the United States Supreme Court, what hasn’t changed for Ruth Bader Ginsburg are her cordial relationships with her fellow justices.

“Collegiality is very important in the workplace,” Justice Ginsburg said during a Sept. 9 visit to the University of Chicago. “We couldn’t do the job the Constitution assigns to us unless we worked well together.”

Welcomed with a standing ovation in a packed auditorium, Ginsburg discussed everything from gender discrimination to her status as a cultural icon in a conversation with Dean Katherine Baicker of the Harris School of Public Policy. During the hourlong event, Ginsburg also lamented the increasingly partisan nature of Supreme Court confirmations, in which senators vote mostly along party lines.

She noted in particular the confirmations of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Nominated by President George W. Bush in 2005, Roberts was confirmed with a 78-22 vote. Sotomayor and Kagan—nominated by President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010, respectively—each received fewer than 70 affirmative votes.

“We really should get back to the way it was when people were examining qualifications of what it takes to be a judge, rather than trying to guess how they would vote on contentious cases,” said Ginsburg, who was confirmed in 1993 with a 96-3 vote, becoming the second woman to join the nation’s highest court.

Ginsburg appeared at UChicago to receive the 2019 Harris Dean’s Award—given annually to an exceptional leader who has championed analytically rigorous, evidence-based approaches to policy, and who is an example for the next generation of policy leaders and scholars.

Ginsburg received the honor from Baicker, the Emmett Dedmon Professor at Harris Public Policy and a leading scholar in the economic analysis of health policy.

Ginsburg, 86, also remarked on the legal and social changes she has observed in her lifetime. As a child, the notion of becoming a judge as a woman was “an unrealistic expectation.” Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan now make up a third of the Supreme Court bench. And whereas she had spent the early part of her legal career challenging explicit gender discrimination, Ginsburg said today’s young lawyers must spend more time combatting the ways in which unconscious biases are reinforced in the law.

“It’s very hard to do anything as a loner, but if you get together with like-minded people, you can be a force for change,” Ginsburg said. “If you look at things over the long haul, we have come a long way from how it once was.”

Ginsburg last visited UChicago in 2013, when she spoke about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Her appearance on campus was the latest in recent years by U.S. Supreme Court justices. In the past decade, UChicago has hosted Kagan, Sotomayor, Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer. Kagan and Scalia both taught at the University of Chicago Law School.

A line to see Ginsburg stretched outside at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts well before Monday’s UChicago event. The demand was unsurprising, given her recent ascent in the cultural consciousness—a rise that includes a documentary, a feature film and her “Notorious R.B.G.” nickname. During their talk, Baicker even pulled out a Ginsburg bobblehead, adding that she “might” be wearing socks in the justice’s likeness.

Asked about her increased fame, Ginsburg acknowledged that the constant photo requests can be “a little overbearing.” However, she also understood why people gravitated to her dissenting opinions in the face of Supreme Court decisions like Shelby County v. Holder, which undid a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“People wanted something positive, something hopeful,” Ginsburg said.