U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made no big news when she spoke to a packed auditorium at the University Of Chicago Monday afternoon.
She didn’t need to.
Everyone from former mayor Rahm Emanuel, with a front-row seat, to young women in the crowd wearing Notorious RBG t-shirts, sat entranced as she shared memories of her 26-year career on the highest court and the progress she witnessed throughout her lifetime. The 86-year-old was successfully treated for pancreatic cancer this summer.
“I’ve seen great changes in my long life,” Ginsburg said, quoting Mildred Loving, the plaintiff in the Loving v. Virginia case that struck down interracial marriage.
“I feel that way too,” she said. “Though we haven’t reached nirvana, we have come a long way from the days when women couldn’t do things just because they were female.”
Ginsburg was in town receiving the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s 2019 Dean’s Award. The award is given annually to those whose work serves as an example for future policy leaders and scholars.
The justice remained optimistic throughout the hour-long conversation as she was asked questions about the political tensions in Washington D.C., how she set aside her differences in her friendship with late Justice Antonin Scalia and the continued fight for gender equality.
She talked about how she has witnessed traditional gender roles for women and men evolve through her law clerks. She said many of her male clerks share parenting responsibilities with their spouses and the weekly happy hours for clerks always include children.
She even put an uplifting spin to her answer when asked about her rise as a cultural phenomenon.
“It went out into the stratosphere,” she said as the crowd laughed. “Mostly because people wanted something positive, something hopeful.”
Ginsburg’s face can be found everywhere, from enamel lapel pins to sharable GIFs where she’s lifting weights during one of her famous daily workout sessions. Even moderator Dean Katherine Baicker hinted she was wearing RBG socks as she pulled out a bobblehead of the justice and placed it on the table between them.
The justice rose to popular cultural fame after a NYU law student started a blog called Notorious RBG in 2013 after Ginsburg wrote a scathing dissent to the Shelby County v. Holder case, which eliminated the need for states to get approval from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws.
But Ginsburg’s optimism shouldn’t be confused with naivete. The justice rattled off Supreme Court cases about various moments in judicial history, noting the gender and racial discrimination that was once widely accepted.
Ginsburg said she never thought about being a judge until President Jimmy Carter nominated many female judges for the first time during his presidency.
“That might be a nice life,” she thought.
When asked about changes she’d like to see to the U.S. Constitution, Ginsburg said any answer would be hypothetical, before answering that she’d like to see the Electoral College changed. She wasn’t optimistic that the Constitution could be amended.
Ginsburg expressed some disdain for the process of electing instead of appointing judges, and especially the way the Supreme Court Justice confirmation process has become politically biased.
When Ginsburg was nominated to the court, she got just three negative votes. She said those who followed her, including Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan, got many more nays. She did not mention Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who arguably had one of the most contentious and divisive Supreme Court confirmation hearings in United States history last year.
“I don’t know what it will take, but we really should get back to the way it was when people were examining the qualifications of someone to be a judge rather than trying to guess how they would vote on contentious cases,” Ginsburg said.
That’s another thing she said she’d like to see change. And, staying on brand, the 86-year-old optimistically added:
“I hope I will see that restoration in my lifetime.”