NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A crowd of approximately 13,000 marveled Tuesday night at one of the longest-serving members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered questions from NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg at Verizon Arena for an hour. Her appearance was part of the Kumpuris Distinguished Lecture series hosted by the Clinton School of Public Service.
Justice Ginsburg has achieved celebrity as a pop culture icon as well as a beacon of hope for those on the left of the political spectrum.
A lot of attention has been paid recently to Justice Ginsburg's health. She had surgery for lung cancer last winter and finished 3 weeks of radiation treatment for pancreatic cancer on August 23.
But she told the crowd she felt pretty well Tuesday evening and came to North Little Rock because she was determined to honor her commitment. She credited the demanding schedule that comes with being a Supreme Court Justice for helping her through her illnesses.
"I think my work is what saved me," she explained, "because instead of dwelling on my physical discomforts, if I have an opinion to write, or I have a brief to read, I know it's—I've just got to get it done, and so I have to get over it."
President Clinton introduced her and spoke about his decision to nominate her for the Supreme Court in 1993. He mentioned that he had never met her until he interviewed her as a finalist for the open position.
"I got why so many people were hoping I'd appoint her," he recalled. "She was both brilliant and had a good head on her shoulders. She was rigorous but warmhearted. She had a great sense of humor and a sensible, achievable judicial philosophy. She also kept the moral compass and the mental toughness that guided her from humble beginnings."
He also joked that he and many others hope she stays on the bench forever.
"I just knew that she was the right person for the court. But I have to say, in the last 26 years, she has far exceeded even my expectations."
Justice Ginsburg infused humor in her stories about growing up in a poor family, struggling with sexism as she entered her law career, and how cases over the years have reflected her beliefs about the Constitution.
She said she was nervous about meeting with President Clinton before he nominated her but that she ended up enjoying her interview.
"We talked about Constitutional Law--after all, he was a Constitutional law professor. We talked about family, and we talked about many things," she recalled. "And I've had the experience with some men that they have certain discomfort talking to a woman. That was not that way with President Clinton."
She became the second woman ever confirmed to the Supreme Court, joining Sandra Day O'Connor. Justice Ginsburg said Justice O'Connor gave her some advice at the start, but not so much as to overwhelm her. She also spoke about the first Supreme Court opinion she was ever assigned to write, and that while most new justices are given straightforward, unanimous decisions to write about, Justice Ginsburg's first opinion was about a complicated case with a split decision.
"So I came to her and I said, 'Sandra, (Chief Justice William Rehnquist) was not supposed to do that to me.' Her response--and this is typical of Justice O'Connor--she said, 'Ruth, you just do it. Just do it. And get your opinion draft in circulation before he makes the next set of assignments. otherwise, you will risk getting another miserable case.'"
Justice Ginsburg talked about how fighting for equality for women throughout her career did not stop when she reached the bench. After Justice O'Connor retired, she was for a time the only woman on the Supreme Court.
"It was a lonely position. And, viewing the court, there was something wrong with the picture. The public would see these eight rather well-fed men coming on the bench, and then there was this rather small woman."
She also recalled times during her career when her ideas would get no reaction, but the same opinion from one of her male colleagues would be received warmly.
"You don't expect very much from a woman," she said of a common attitude she faced, "so you kind of tune out when she speaks. But you listen when a male speaks.
"Now, I can tell you that that experience--which I had as a member of a law faculty, as a member of a Court of Appeals--now that I have two 'sisters in law,' it doesn't happen."
She said she and President Clinton shared a philosophy about how to evaluate their achievements. They looked at the phrases "we the people" and "in order to form a more perfect Union" from the prologue to the Constitution and asked themselves, "who is in 'we the people,'" and "what makes the Union more perfect?" She said that explained why she believes in the Constitution as a living document rather than considering it as the Founding Fathers intended it.
"The genius of the Constitution," Justice Ginsburg stated, "is what Justice Thurgood Marshall said. He said he doesn't celebrate the original Constitution, but he does celebrate what the Constitution has become now, well over two centuries. And that is, the concept of 'We the People' has become ever more inclusive."
The Supreme Court's next term will begin October 7.