Lighter Side of Life at the United States Supreme Court
New England Law | Boston
March 13, 2009
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States
For these pre-dinner remarks, I have chosen an altogether digestible topic: customs that promote collegiality among the nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court. My aim is to describe not the Court’s heavy work, but the lighter side of life in our Marble Palace.
I will comment first on our routine gatherings. They begin with handshakes, 36 of them to be exact. Before each day in Court begins, and before each conference discussion, as we enter the Robing Room or the adjacent Conference Room, we shake hands, each Justice with every other. Every day the Court hears arguments, and every day we meet to discuss cases, we lunch together in the Justices’ Dining Room. The room is elegant, but the lunch is not haute cuisine. It comes from the Court’s public cafeteria, the same fare available to anyone who visits the Court.
We lunch together by choice, not by rule, usually six to eight of us, and more than occasionally all nine. When Justice O’Connor (currently, the only retired Justice) is in town, she often shares the lunch hour with us and enlivens our conversation with reports of her travels in the United States and around the globe.
At the lunch table we may talk about the lawyers’ performance in the cases just heard, or a new production in town, perhaps at the D.C. Shakespeare Theatre or the Washington National Opera, or the latest exhibition at the Library of Congress, National Gallery, or Phillips Collection. Sometimes the younger members of the Court speak of their children, the older members, of their grandchildren.
From time to time, we invite a guest to vary the lunch table conversation. Invitees in recent terms have included: former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, Aharon Barak; former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan; and, most recently, Albie Sachs, Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. [So far, retired Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, and former President of the World Bank Jim Wolfensohn, have been our only repeat invitees. (Both have an unusual talent. They can engage in lively conversation and eat lunch at the same time.)]
We celebrate Justices’ birthdays with a pre-lunch toast, and a “Happy Birthday” chorus generally led by Justice Scalia, because among us, he is best able to carry a tune. Sometimes the celebration includes a cake baked by my husband, master chef and Georgetown University Law Center tax professor, Martin D. Ginsburg.
Professor Ginsburg is a regular contributor to the lighter side of life at the Supreme Court. Mainly he performs in the kitchen, for the quarterly spouses lunches held at the Court and, occasionally in past years, at a dinner for the entire Court family — Justices, their spouses, and widows of former Court members. In the beginning, when I was the newest Justice, my dear husband offered aid in lightening my load.
During my first months on the Court I received, week after week, as I still do, literally hundreds of letters — nowadays increasingly fedexes, faxes, and emails — requesting all manner of responses. Brought up under instructions that plates must be cleaned and communications answered, I was drowning in correspondence despite the best efforts of my resourceful secretaries to contain the flood.
Early in 1994, Justice Scalia and I traveled to India for a judicial exchange. In my absence, my spouse tested his conviction that my mail could be handled more efficiently. He visited chambers, checked the incoming correspondence, grouped the requests into a dozen or so categories, and devised an all-purpose response for my secretaries’ signature. When I returned, he gave me the form, which to this day, he regards as a model of utility and grace. I will read a few parts of the letter my husband composed. You may judge for yourself its usefulness and grace.
You recently wrote Justice Ginsburg. She would respond personally if she could, but (as Frederick told Mabel in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance) she is not able. Incoming mail reached flood levels months ago and shows no sign of receding.
To help the Justice stay above water, we have endeavored to explain why she cannot do what you have asked her to do. Please refer to the paragraph below with the caption that best fits your request.
Favorite Recipes. The Justice was expelled from the kitchen nearly three decades ago by her food-loving children. She no longer cooks and the one recipe from her youth, tuna fish casserole, is nobody’s favorite.
Photograph. Justice Ginsburg is flattered, indeed amazed, by the number of requests for her photograph. She is now 61 years of age ah, those were the days! — and understandably keeps no supply.
Are We Related? The birth names of the Justice’s parents are Bader and Amster. Many who bear those names have written, giving details of origin and immigration. While the information is engrossing, you and she probably are not related within any reasonable degree of consanguinity. Justice Ginsburg knows, or knew, all of the issue of all in her family fortunate enough to make their way to the U.S.A.
I will spare you my husband’s thoughts on Fund-raising, School Projects, Congratulatory Letters, Document Requests, Sundry Invitations, and proceed to one last category:
May I Visit? If you are any of the Justice’s four grandchildren and wish to visit, she will be overjoyed. If you are a writer or researcher and want to observe the work of Chambers, the answer is “no.” Confidentiality really matters in this workplace.
My secretaries, you will not be surprised to learn, vetoed my husband’s letter, and in the ensuing years they have managed to cope with the mail flood through measures more sympathique.
Since February 5, the day of my pancreatic cancer surgery, messages of hope and offers of prayer have numbered in the hundreds. I have been obliged to respond by a form letter, but this time, it is one I composed.
Returning to the Court’s social life, a typical example of events we host every now and then, mainly for lawyers and judges: We take turns greeting attendees at dinners for newly appointed federal judges, gathered in D.C. for a week of orientation. We also take turns introducing speakers at Supreme Court Historical Society biannual lecture series.
My most recent ventures for the Historical Society involved, first, an October 27 program at the City Bar Association in New York centered on the work and days of Belva Lockwood, first woman to gain membership in the Supreme Court’s Bar. After her 1879 admission, she ran twice for the U.S. Presidency, in 1884 and 1888. Next, in December, I presided at a Historical Society sponsored reenactment of the arguments before the Court in a famous case decided in 1908, Muller v. Oregon. The Court’s decision in Muller broke away from the prevailing laissez-faire philosophy and upheld an Oregon law limiting the hours women could be gainfully employed to 10 per day. Muller v. Oregon is also well known for the brief filed on behalf of Oregon by Louis D. Brandeis. That Brandeis brief contained nearly 100 pages of real and supposed facts about social and economic conditions, and only a few pages of standard legal argument.
An annual pleasant pause. Each May, just after hearings are over and before the intense end of May, early June weeks when the Term’s remaining opinions must be completed and released, the Court holds a Musicale. That tradition was inaugurated in 1988 by Justice Blackmun, who passed the baton to Justice O’Connor when he retired. For the past seven years, I have attended to arrangements for the Musicales. We have recently added a Fall recital. This term’s fall recital artist was Renée Fleming, celebrated Diva at the Metropolitan Opera and other grand opera venues around the globe.
In between sitting weeks, some of us spend a day or two visiting U.S. universities or law schools as I am doing just now, or attending meetings with judges and lawyers across the country. Mid winter or summer some of us travel abroad to teach, or to learn what we can about legal systems in distant places. For example, in recent recesses, I have taught, lectured, or participated in meetings of jurists in Australia, Austria, China, England, France, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Work at the U.S. Supreme Court is ever challenging, enormously time consuming, and tremendously satisfying. We are constantly reading, thinking, and trying to write so that at least lawyers and other judges will understand our rulings.
As you may have noticed, we have sharp differences on certain issues — fairly recent examples include affirmative action, public school desegregation, the death penalty, control of electoral campaign financing, access to court by detainees in Guantanamo Bay. But through it all, we remain good friends, people who respect each other, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. In recent terms, we have even managed to agree, unanimously, some 30 to 40 percent of the time. That contrasts with the Court’s 5-4 splits, which last term accounted for about 16 percent of the Court’s decisions. Our mutual respect is only momentarily touched, in most instances, by our sometimes strong disagreements on what the law is.
All of us appreciate that the institution we serve is far more important than the particular individuals who compose the Court’s bench at any given time. And our job, in my view, is the best work a jurist anywhere could have. Our charge is to pursue justice as best we can. The Founding Fathers were wise enough to equip us to do that by according us life tenure (or, as the Constitution says, tenure “during good behavior”), and salaries that cannot be diminished while we hold office.
Our former Chief Justice, William H. Rehnquist, spoke of the role of the judge using a sports metaphor:
The Constitution has placed the judiciary in a position similar to that of a referee in a basketball game who is obliged to call a foul against a member of the home team at a critical moment in the game: he will be soundly booed, but he is nonetheless obliged to call it as he saw it, not as the home court crowd wants him to call it.
The day any judge shirks from that responsibility, Chief Justice Rehnquist counseled, is the day he or she should resign from office. All members of today’s Court would concur in that counsel.
With thanks for your patient audience, it is now time to say Bon Appetit!