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A CONVERSATION WITH RUTH BADER GINSBURG ’54

Jessica Raha on June 22, 2016 By Linda Jarschauer Johnson ’60, Cornell Club of Washington

On September 24, 2015, Pope Francis’ address to Congress was not the only hot ticket in town. Two hundred and fifty Cornell Club of Washington members and their guests attended “A Conversation with Ruth Bader Ginsburg” in the courtroom at the Supreme Court. And I was privileged to have the conversation with her.

President Bill Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993. A member of the Cornell Class of 1954, Ginsburg was actually the second female Cornellian he appointed. A few months earlier, my classmate Janet Reno, Class of 1960, was appointed Attorney General. That year, I was serving the tenth year of what would be a 25-year career as Executive Director of the Cornell in Washington Program. I contacted Janet Reno’s office and asked if she would meet with our students. She agreed and the CIW students visited her office at the Department of Justice every semester from 1993 through 2001.

Emboldened by that success, I contacted Justice Ginsburg’s staff to ask if she would see our students. She, too, agreed and CIW students have visited with her at the Supreme Court each semester since her appointment. I retired in the fall of 2008 but continue to attend these meetings, which are still my favorite CIW activity.

Initially, the Cornell students met with Justice Ginsburg alone. Then, as more schools made requests, we shared our sessions with American University and sometimes George Washington. Our most amusing “share” was with a sixth grade class from California, whose teacher turned out to be the mother of a former Cornell in Washington student. Most of the visits were held in the East or West Conference Room. The semester I retired, Justice Ginsburg saw the Cornell students alone in the Lawyer’s Lounge. She also arranged to have the Court photographer take both a group photo and a photo of the Justice with me. When I received a print of the photograph, he included a notation that Justice Ginsburg said she would sign a copy for me. And she did.

In retirement, I became more active in the Cornell Club of Washington, our local alumni organization, and in 2013 arranged the Club’s first meeting with Justice Ginsburg. That meeting, for one hundred people, also took place in one of the Conference Rooms. Justice Ginsburg spoke briefly and then answered questions.

In making arrangements for this year’s event, Justice Ginsburg indicated she would like to change the format and do a conversation, as she had in New York City in the fall of 2014. Arts College Dean Gretchen Ritter ‘84 had “conversed” with Justice Ginsburg at that event and I gave a good deal of thought to who our conversant should be. Then it dawned on me that I had attended about 44 sessions with the Justice over the past 22 years and had heard a lot of questions and a lot of answers. I had my favorites and thought I had a good idea what other Cornellians would like to hear. So I asked if I could be the questioner and Justice Ginsburg agreed.

The afternoon of September 24th was selected more than a year in advance. Then, in mid-August, we learned that Pope Francis would be visiting Washington, DC and addressing Congress that morning. The Office of Personnel Management was suggesting federal workers telecommute that day, so we double-checked with Justice Ginsburg’s office to see if having our event would pose any problems. Her office assured us that the Supreme Court did not follow OPM directives and would be fully staffed and operational. The Justice’s schedule was so full that any rescheduling would push the event into 2016. The decision was made to continue as planned.

Two hundred and fifty attendees seemed more than sufficient, but we made the event members only and permitted each member to bring one guest. We had no idea how quickly registrations would fill up. In an eight-hour period, 49 new members joined or renewed and in a few days the event was full. We spent the rest of September answering requests to be on the wait list. The Pope’s visit and authorities’ widespread requests to use public transportation or avoid coming to the Capitol, led to many cancellations from our alumni. As a result, everyone on the wait list was able to attend.

As I walked to the Court from Union Station at l:30 that afternoon, the crowds were gone and the barricades were being disassembled. As I passed two Capitol Police officers standing beside their van, I asked if everything had gone all right. They replied there had been no reports of any problems. I mentioned I was going to an event with Justice Ginsburg and some of our attendees had cancelled because of concerns about crowds. One of the officers said, "You can’t spell TRUTH without RUTH."

As our alumni assembled on the lower level, I was introduced to two seniors in the Industrial and Labor Relations School, who had driven down from Cornell the night before. Sophie Allen ‘16, whose parents are members of the Cornell Club, brought her friend Katerina Duarte ‘16 with her. They sat in the front row and later got to ask Justice Ginsburg a question.

When I greeted Justice Ginsburg, I told her about her new role as a major marketing tool for the Cornell Club of Washington and that we had to plan more of these events in order to get our membership over 1,000.

She was gracious and candid in responses to my questions. We talked about Cornell, which her uncle and counselors at summer camp had attended; her freshman corridor in Clara Dickson, with seven Jewish women living side by side; studying in a fourth floor women’s room in Goldwin Smith; her favorite professors, Robert Cushman and Vladimir Nabokov; and, perhaps her best part of Cornell, meeting Marty Ginsburg.

She shared what it was like to be one of nine females in a class of five hundred at Harvard Law School, which would not grant her a law degree because she had to complete her last year of study at Columbia. Harvard tried to rectify the situation in later years, but she held out for an honorary degree from the University, which she received in 2011.

She talked about how difficult it was for female attorneys to get a first job, in her case a clerkship; her groundbreaking work for the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union; and her time on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

She discussed the collegiality and support of the members of the US Supreme Court; her close relationship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; and briefly about the world premier of the opera "Scalia/Ginsburg."

Finally, I asked her feelings about becoming a social icon. I showed her my Notorious RBG tote bag and she admitted that her law clerks had to explain that Notorious B.I.G was a famous rapper. I shared the comment made by the Capitol Police Officer on my way to the Court. She smiled and, as she left, said she didn’t know there were tote bags. So I promised to send one to her.

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