Weather Updates

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows different side to DePaul audience

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Associate Justice U.S. Supreme Court speaks during The Centennial CelebratiDriehaus College Business College Law School Music DePaul

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court speaks during The Centennial Celebration of the Driehaus College of Business, College of Law, and School of Music of DePaul University at Chicago History Museum, Chicago, on Friday, May 10, 2013. | Ting Shen~Sun-Times Media

storyidforme: 49058682
tmspicid: 18247618
fileheaderid: 8200454

Updated: June 13, 2013 7:19PM

It was a different side of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that a DePaul University audience of some 500 were treated to at a centennial celebration for its law, business and music schools Friday night at the Chicago History Museum.

They got a witty, laid-back, opera aficionado who humorously linked those divergent fields together in deft commentary.

But they also heard poignant remarks at night’s end about Ginsburg’s lifelong championing of equality for all and the most difficult cases to come before her — those involving the death penalty.

DePaul, said the 80-year-old justice and staunch women’s rights advocate, “holds a special place in my remembrance of good things past,” as it conferred on her an honorary degree in 1985, “eight years before I was appointed to this invitation-attracting job I now hold.”

The event featured Ginsburg — on the court 20 years, appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 — sitting on stage engaging in a one-on-one repartee with William Mason, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s general director emeritus.

The two bantered between various opera performances by DePaul music faculty — with Ginsburg’s daughter-in-law, soprano Patrice Michaels, a voice teacher at University of Chicago who is married to her son, James, and sings with the Lyric Opera, a special guest.

Michaels performed an original piece dedicated to the justice.

Ginsburg, considered part of the court’s moderate-liberal bloc, kicked off the evening with a short lecture about law and opera, displaying her keen knowledge of that medium as the names and plots of myriad operatic pieces rolled off her tongue.

“Lawyers and judges as a rule fare rather badly in operatic works,” she said to laughter.

“My expertise to address this topic may not be clear. For truth be told, I am ill-equipped to break out in song. My grade school music teacher labeled me a sparrow, not a robin, and instructed me to just mouth the words. Still, in my dreams I can be a great diva.”

It was after the program — accepting a handful of questions from the audience — that Ginsburg talked of her court career.

Born March 15, 1933, in a low-income, working-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, she graduated first in her class at Cornell University in 1954. She spoke of the male-dominated, hostile environment she encountered at Harvard Law School.

“In the law, women were simply not there in the ancient days when I went to law school, maybe 3 percent of women were of the legal profession. My entry class at Harvard had over 500 people — nine women,” the justice said.

But Ginsburg excelled at Harvard, becoming the first female member of its prestigious law review before transferring to Columbia Law School, where she again graduated first in her class in 1959. It was the gender discrimination she encountered when seeking employment that shaped her early feminist views, she said.

“People always ask me, ‘Did you always want to be a judge?’ What I wanted to do was get a job,” she said. “It’s absolutely wonderful to see the changes and where we are now.”

She taught at Rutgers University Law School from 1963 to 1972 and at Columbia from 1972 to 1980, becoming Columbia’s first female tenured professor. She entered the national spotlight in the 1970s as director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, arguing six landmark gender-equality cases before the Supreme Court.

Asked her heroes, she drew laughter with: “I suppose mine was Nancy Drew because she was a girl who was out there doing her work and dominating her boyfriend.” Turning serious, she named the late-1800s suffragist Belva Ann Lockwood, one of the nation’s first female lawyers and the first woman allowed to practice before the Supreme Court — in 1879, after having successfully petitioned Congress to change that law.

“And Bella wasn’t satisfied,” said Ginsburg. “She ran for president twice, in 1884 and 1888. She said I know we don’t have the vote yet, but there is nothing in the constitution that says we can’t run for president.”

Ginsburg was appointed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Court of Appeals, then selected by Clinton to fill the seat then vacated by Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

She wrote the court’s 1996 landmark decision in U.S. vs. Virginia, which said the state-supported Virginia Military Institute could not refuse women. She also wrote a dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, in which the majority decided Bush won the 2000 presidential election.

“What I’ve tried to do is show the world is a better place for all of us — men, women and children — if we aren’t pigeonholed or put in a box,” she said.

Her most challenging case?

“From my very first year on the court up till my 20th year, death-penalty cases are for me the most difficult,” Ginsburg said. “To be part of a system that has the last word on whether somebody lives or dies is very, very difficult.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.