Justice Ginsburg talks hope, the death penalty, and the future of women’s rights

Electricity filled Michael A. Fitts Auditorium in Penn Law School’s Golkin Hall as students and faculty awaited the arrival of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Monday, Feb. 12. Though small in stature, the associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court naturally commands respect, exemplified by a standing ovation and long, loud applause as she approached a brown leather chair in the center of the room.

For the next hour, she listened as distinguished panelists—introduced by Penn Law Dean Ted Ruger and including professor Serena Mayeri—recognized her accomplishments during a quarter century on the bench. She was humble and soft-spoken, responding to each with compliments and modesty, and delightful personal stories. It felt intimate, like a one-on-one conversation, yet shared among 300 friends.

The exchange closed with questions from five Penn Law students.  

Second-year student Greta Wiessner asked Ginsburg whether she has ever presided over a case in which no legal interpretation could lead to a just outcome. Without skipping a beat, Ginsburg responded, “Death penalty cases.

“If I were queen, there would be no death penalty, but I’m part of a collegial body,” she said. “When you’re a member of a collegial court, there is a strong tug for a middle ground and away from either extreme. I think what stops us from attempting to project our own will is those other eight on the court; I wouldn’t want them to be king, so I must accept that I am not queen.”

Ebenezer Gyazi, a student from Newark, N.J., asked Ginsburg what makes her hopeful in today’s world.

“I have lived a long time and what I’ve seen has made me optimistic about the future,” she said. She mentioned defeating McCarthyism and experiencing the 2017 Women’s Marches, and then she addressed the Millennials in the room. She said seeing them become activists, standing up for their beliefs, gives her confidence in the future.

“It’s in your hands to see which way our country goes,” Ginsburg said, “whether it will adhere to its most basic values or whether it will succumb and suppress our right to think, speak, and write as we believe.”

Later that evening, Ginsberg presented the Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture at the National Constitution Center. Penn President Amy Gutmann delivered opening remarks, which touched on Ginsberg’s career since her 1993 Supreme Court appointment by President Clinton.

“She has distinguished herself as a brilliant jurist, a passionate advocate for justice and equality before the law, and an astute consensus builder within the Court,” Gutmann said. “She has lived the life of a pioneer.”

Ginsburg’s commitment to equality came across in many of the stories she shared during the rest of the evening’s conversation with the National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen. She talked about standing up to the perpetrator in her own #MeToo experience, and described how, early in her career, she pointed out to male judges the inappropriateness of making jokes at her expense as a female. And she discussed the many cases—some on which she wrote the majority opinion, others the dissent—that flag inequalities against women.

Even in her 80s, Ginsburg remains unwavering in her quest for justice.

“Progress has been enormous, and that,” she said, “is what makes me hopeful.” 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg