We the People: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the genius of the Constitution

Along with 17 other Peddie students, senior Tom Keenan traveled to the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia last Friday for an evening with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I was relieved to hear that she would be doing the talking. I knew was she was old, liberal, and (from Ms. Hogarth’s email) liked to water ski. Said to be among the world’s most powerful women, I really didn't know what her job entailed when we boarded the bus to Philadelphia last Friday night.

Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg began by describing who the founding fathers had originally intended to include by starting our Constitution with “We the People.” Their original conception was limited to a minority of Americans, she pointed out, which would not have included herself. Since their times, social change has expanded the definition of “people.”  At 80, Ginsburg does not have to look to history textbooks for examples of exclusion.

What she attributes to a progress toward inclusion is the “genius” of our Constitution. Although the word “equality” was not present in the original document, Ginsburg claims the idea has always been there, to be defined differently by each generation.

This is never what I thought a Supreme Court Justice was supposed to do—interpret the Constitution and interpret it for the modern day. She suggested that Constitution was a framework to be expanded on. Continuing, she recalled the marriage she performed recently, the first Supreme Court Justice to administer a gay wedding. Her vision is to further include gays in “We the People.” This led the host to naturally ask her to reflect on accusations of the politicization of the court. Now I started to realize Ginsburg was not someone I had to agree with, but – like all sources – by nature biased.

Predictably, Ginsburg answered that of course the court is not a political arena. She told us the court works to answers Constitutional questions through the purest analysis of the document. What else would she say? That the liberal Justices group up when making decisions to fit their agenda? That her political ideology guides how she votes? Not when the TV cameras are pointing straight at her. Maybe she actually does believe her opinions are based off the truest possible interpretation of the Constitution. Maybe all Justices think this. I would say her record, which has earned her the reputation as the liberal “anchor” of the court, would suggest otherwise, though. I am not sure I can believe her court decisions don’t accurately reflect what she would do if she were “queen” (a notion she rejected in a comment met with laughter by the audience). I don’t mean to single her out. All Justices do this because it is impossible for anyone to remove their beliefs as they make decisions.

When I had become effectively jaded, I realized it would be best to stop, relax, and actually listen with an open mind to the rest. It seemed to work. What did I appreciate about it after coming to terms with her bias? I didn’t quite know until I thought about it the next day.

I think I now understand why I walked away with an awakened interest in the Court. Instead of focusing on Ginsburg’s exact views that night: her thoughts on women’s rights, her distress over the overturning of some parts of the Voting Rights Act, or her version of an interesting men’s rights case, I left with an understanding of one Supreme Court Justice’s idealized version of the Court. Her vision of how the court should operate.
I think her belief in the Constitution’s adaptive genius is real. 

A second aspect of the Court she emphasized throughout the night was the collegiality between Justices—especially between those with opposing ideologies. When encouraged to criticize Chief Justice Roberts (appointed by George W. Bush) in one instance, she responded that they agreed more than they disagreed. When approached about her more frequent issues with Justice Scalia (the purported conservative leader of the Court) she highlighted their longstanding friendship. In both cases, she reflected on  the collegiality of the court which fosters open debate and, more often than not, unity. This is not an idea I usually associate with government. So does the court actually operate this way? I don’t know, but I did leave with an appreciation for the Court’s goals (even if only nominal) and its place in the federal government.

Supreme Court Justices usually avoid the public eye, so the opportunity to learn how one views the Court, and her place within it, offered all of us who went a rare look into a branch of government usually in the spotlight only a few times a year.