UChicago’s history of dialogues with U.S. Supreme Court justices

Ruth Bader Ginsburg to visit Harris Public Policy for Sept. 9 talk

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago on Sept. 9, it will be the latest in a series of appearances on campus by U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Dean Katherine Baicker of the Harris School of Public Policy will host a conversation with Justice Ginsburg at 4:30 p.m. and award her 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.

Six current or past justices have spoken at UChicago in the last decade, including two who taught at the University of Chicago Law School: Elena Kagan and the late Antonin Scalia. The events have reflected the Court’s range of ideological views, but they also have shown what unites the justices in their legal calling.

Ginsburg last visited UChicago in 2013, when she spoke with leading legal scholar Geoffrey Stone on the 40th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. Before a packed Law School audience, Ginsburg said that Roe “seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.” She argued that the case was too far-reaching, making reproductive rights a more prominent target than it might have been after a more gradual approach. The Roe ruling, she added, was also centered on “the doctor’s right to practice...it wasn’t woman-centered, it was physician-centered.”

Learn more about past UChicago visits by Supreme Court justices below:

Elena Kagan, 2015

Kagan drew from her experience as a former UChicago faculty member when describing how she approached her Supreme Court duties. In a discussion with David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics, she compared her process of synthesizing arguments to what she did as a teacher: “When I taught, I would come in the morning before class and ask: ‘How am I going to communicate complex ideas to this crowd of people?’”

“I try to put myself back in that mindset,” Kagan added. “How am I going to explain it? How am I going to persuade them that this is the right decision in this case? I think a lot about that preparation for teaching when I do that.”

Read more here: https://www.uchicago.edu/features/u.s._justice_elana_kagan_discusses_career/

Antonin Scalia, 2012

Scalia, who taught at UChicago from 1977 to 1982, returned to campus to deliver a lecture titled “Methodology of Originalism”—defending his emphasis on constitutional interpretation as something that ought to be guided strictly by the intent of its framers.

During his visit, he also described the University as “one of two or three of the most formidable intellectual institutions in the world; a really impressive place. You’re lucky to be here, and I’m glad to be back."

Read more here: https://www.uchicago.edu/features/20120220_scalia/

John Paul Stevens, 2011

One of the longest-serving justices in Supreme Court history, Stevens, AB’41, used part of his visit to discuss the only vote he ever regretted. In 1976, he was part of the 7-2 majority in Jurek v. Texas, which upheld capital punishment as constitutional. Stevens shifted his opinion in the following decades, eventually deciding that “the death penalty, as a matter of policy, is unwise if there is even a minimum of doubt.”

The Hyde Park native’s return to UChicago was highlighted by his discussion with Prof. Dennis Hutchinson, and coincided with the launch of his memoir, Five Chiefs.

Read more here: https://news.uchicago.edu/story/event-justice-stevens-recounts-remarkable-supreme-court-career

Sonia Sotomayor, 2011

Appearing at UChicago less than two years after being confirmed to the Supreme Court, Sotomayor recounted the best advice she received: David Souter, who retired in 2009, told her to remember that her fellow justices were committed to law and the Constitution. His words, she told Law School students, became a reminder to stop and listen to the views of her colleagues with respect.

Of course, that didn’t mean they never disagreed. Asked about originalism during a wide-ranging question-and-answer session, Sotomayor said she didn’t see the concept “as a day-to-day approach that gives you a clear answer.” She stressed instead the importance of acknowledging two centuries of legislative history.

Read more here: https://www.law.uchicago.edu/news/special-day-justice-sotomayor

Stephen Breyer, 2009

Visiting as part of the interdisciplinary conference “Shakespeare and the Law,” Breyer was called upon to play the role during performances of Shakespeare scenes by faculty, alumni and student actors. The conference was run by Profs. Martha Nussbaum and Richard Posner of the Law School, and Prof. Richard Strier in English.

“He’s looking for truth,” Breyer said of Hamlet, in a discussion with the UChicago scholars, “and by the time he’s pretty sure what the truth is, it doesn’t really matter that much any more.”

Read more here: https://mag.uchicago.edu/law-policy-society/shakespeares-laws