W&L, VMI Host Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Ginsburg’s visit was a year in the making and came 20 years after she penned the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, the landmark case that struck down VMI’s male-only admissions policy.
“Her contributions to social justice and gender equality have been profound. Her promotion of gender equality rights — as a skilled and strategic litigator, as a pioneering teacher and mentor, and as a careful and visionary jurist — has been life-changing for generations of women who came after her.”
— Johanna Bond, associate dean, W&L School of Law
A joint effort between Washington and Lee University School of Law and Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday brought Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Lexington, where she addressed an audience of thousands in the morning, and had law students lining up three hours in advance for a private Q&A session in the afternoon.
During both events, the 83-year-old associate justice balanced comments about American jurisprudence and her lengthy, transformative legal career with charming anecdotes about her personal life, ultimately reinforcing her lifelong message that men and women of all political and cultural stripes can have a profound impact on the world around them.
“I would say this to all young lawyers, men as well as women,” Ginsburg told the law students. “Whatever you do in the law, do in addition something you are passionate about, whether it is gender equality or the environment, discrimination or free speech — do something outside yourself that will make things a little better for people who are less fortunate than you are.”
Ginsburg’s visit was a year in the making and came 20 years after she penned the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, the landmark case that struck down VMI’s male-only admissions policy. At VMI’s 3,800-capacity Cameron Hall, which was nearly full on Wednesday morning, Ginsburg recalled that the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s lone dissenting opinion in the case opened with the declaration that admitting women would destroy VMI.
“I knew it wouldn’t. It would make VMI a better place,” Ginsburg told the crowd, which erupted in applause.
Today, VMI’s student body is about 11 percent female. The VMI community seemed to enjoy Ginsburg’s talk, said school spokesman Stewart MacInnis on Thursday. “Women cadets, especially, say they appreciated Justice Ginsburg’s remarks and the impact she has had on their lives. Several of them told me they didn’t really understand until this event the controversy surrounding the decision in the societal context of the latter half of the 20th century.”
One of the most poignant moments of the morning came when Ginsburg told the story of a VMI pin she wore on her pewter-colored jacket. Shortly after the case was decided, she said, a VMI graduate mailed the pin to her with a letter explaining that the pins were given to the mothers of all VMI graduates. His mother had passed away, and he wanted Ginsburg to have the pin.
Ginsburg read from the letter: “In an abstract way, you will be mother to the first graduating class of VMI women … Be sure to wear it proudly any time, but especially if you are ever invited to VMI.”
The woman affectionately nicknamed “RBG” by fans can relate to being one of few women in a class of men. Of her time at Harvard Law School, where she was only one of nine female students in a class of about 500, she said, “you felt you were constantly on display. If you failed or didn’t perform well, you felt you were failing not only for yourself, but for all women.”
Ginsburg was anything but a failure there, making the Harvard Law Review at a time when she was also supporting her husband through cancer treatments and helping to raise their toddler daughter. Despite the challenges, she said, “there was a balance to my life that many students didn’t have. Each part of my life, I thought, was a respite from the other.”
After lunch at Lee House, the W&L president’s residence, Ginsburg held a private Q&A in the Millhiser Moot Court Room at the W&L Law School. She was accompanied, as she had been at VMI, by her two longtime biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, both Georgetown Law professors.
About 140 students and faculty filled the courtroom while more than 200 watched a livestream of the session in nearby classrooms. Students had submitted questions in advance, and faculty selected 15 to pose their questions to Justice Ginsburg. Topics included diversity in the legal community, international law, the media’s interpretation of Supreme Court decisions, and the qualities she hopes to see in the next Supreme Court justice. The last question came just one day after President Donald Trump nominated federal judge Neil Gorsuch for the seat left vacant after Scalia’s death last year.
“I’d say it takes a readiness to work really hard – this is the hardest job I’ve ever had – it takes a tremendous amount of reading, and then thinking and writing,” she said. “And if you are part of a collegial court, [it takes] a willingness to listen to your colleagues, because on the Supreme Court if you are writing for the court, you are not writing for yourself, you are writing for others. So you have to present the views of the consensus, not what you might do alone if you were queen. So collegiality is a very, very important part of the way the court works — and a sense of humor really helps.”
Throughout the day, Ginsburg talked about her famous friendship with Scalia, who usually disagreed with her on an ideological basis. Professionally, she said, he made her a better judge because he helped her to identify the weak spots in her arguments. Personally, they bonded over their love of family and the opera. “I miss him very much,” she said. “Without him, the court is a paler place because he brought so much zest to our discussions.”
At the law school, students were impressed to be in the presence of a Supreme Court justice. Ginsburg’s work with the Association of American Law Schools and American Bar Association played a role in making the school coeducational in the 1970s.
“I admire Justice Ginsburg because she has always broken through glass ceilings,” said third-year law student Tejkaran Bains. “We both come from immigrant families. Justice Ginsburg was one of only nine women on her class. I am the only Sikh person in my law school and the only person who wears a turban. It was so inspiring and surreal to see Justice Ginsburg.”
Rebecca Varghese, also a third-year law student, said she was most impressed by Ginsburg’s comments about disagreeing in a manner that is at once direct and civil. Varghese said that’s important in this age of polarization in both the political and legal spheres. “This adversarial system can isolate other viewpoints, and I think her message of advocating inclusiveness while still remaining appropriately assertive was an apt takeaway for me.”
To watch the Q&A with Justice Ginsburg at the Washington and Lee School of Law, click here.
More from the Mind of RBG
On the House Un-American Activities Committee of the 1950s: “We were straying from our most basic values, and that is to write, think, and speak as you believe, and not as a big-brother government tells you to.”
On her daily workout: Her personal trainer, a member of the Army Reserves who also trains two other Supreme Court justices, “puts her through the paces” for an hour. She does 20 push-ups (not the so-called “girl push-ups,” but she does take a quick break after 10), weight-lifting and “something called a plank.”
On the gift she received from VMI on Wednesday, a crystal block with a cadet engraved in the center: “This will be placed on a shelf just behind my desk, and I will be very proud to put it there.” Washington and Lee University presented the justice with a Jefferson cup.
On Cornell University, where she earned her undergraduate degree and met her late husband, Martin Ginsburg: “Cornell was a preferred school for daughters.” It was thought that “if she can’t find her man here, she’s hopeless … In fact, I did find my man there, and he was extraordinary for the ’50s because he cared that I had a brain. He was my biggest booster. He thought my work was at least as important as his.”
On the U.S. Constitution, a tattered copy of which she carries around in her hefty purse: The opening words, “We the People,” referred to “white, property-owning men, and that was it. Of course, people were then held in human bondage – they were not part of ‘We the People.’ Native Americans were not part of ‘We the People.’ And half of the population, women, were not part of the political constituency. So I say the genius of the Constitution is that, over the course now of much more than 200 years, this notion of who belongs in ‘We the People’ has become ever more expansive. So it is the inclusiveness of ‘We the People’ today in contrast to what it was. I think the Founding Fathers may have had an idea of what it someday may have become, but they were held back by the limitations of their own time.”
On the most memorable New Year’s Eve ever spent with Scalia: “We started this tradition of celebrating every New Year’s together. Sometimes it was at the Scalias’, but much more often it was at my house because my husband was such an excellent cook. And it would usually be that Scalia would hunt something — usually it was Bambi. But one year … it wasn’t Bambi, so we couldn’t make venison. It was a wild boar! And Marty worked for quite some time to find an appropriate recipe for wild boar, but he succeeded.”