Thank you to Justice Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg's Inspiring Gift to Columbia and Barnard Students

Editor's note:

Sidney S. Rosdeitcher, CC '58, is Adjunct Professor of Political Science; Of Counsel, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

Sidney S. Rosdeitcher
November 13, 2020

Each year from 2008 to 2019, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arranged for the students in the undergraduate constitutional law seminar I teach at Columbia to visit the United States Supreme Court to hear oral arguments and then meet privately with her. This is a memoir of those occasions and a posthumous thank you to the late Justice Ginsburg for this inspiring gift to my students and me.[1]

Planning for this annual event began every year in May or early June when I wrote to Justice Ginsburg asking if she would meet with my class in the coming term that began in October and also arrange for my class to attend oral arguments before the Court that same day. The Justice always graciously agreed and asked her assistant to fix a date for the meeting that coincided with the Justice’s schedule and the Supreme Court’s argument calendar in October or November.

As that date approached, I briefed my students on the cases we would hear, providing a summary of the issues and the arguments the parties were making. We also discussed the kinds of questions we might ask Justice Ginsburg at the meeting. We each made our own arrangements to travel to Washington and agreed to meet at the Court at 9:15 a.m. on the appointed day.[2] As I did the same travel routine for twelve years, it is fixed in my memory. I would arise early enough to breakfast at home and get to Penn Station in time to catch the 5:30 a.m. Amtrak to Washington. As Amtrak rarely arrived in Washington on schedule, I almost always had to dash from Union Station up First Street, N.E. to be sure to greet my students at our meeting place on the sidewalk at the foot of the great marble staircase leading up to the Court’s main entrance.

The day arrived, we all found our way to the meeting place in front of the Court and began ascending the steps until we were approached by a security officer. I informed him that we were from Columbia and were there at Justice Ginsburg’s invitation to attend the day’s arguments. These magic words opened the doors for us, allowing us to bypass the lines of visitors hoping to get a seat to hear one or more of the day’s arguments. Once inside and through security and having shed most of our belongings in the cloakroom, we ascended to the second floor, and stood in line outside the Courtroom, along with other groups from high schools and colleges around the country who had also reserved seats to attend the arguments. At 9:45, the security officers began admitting us to the Courtroom where we sat in hushed silence, while we awaited the Justices under the watchful eye of the security officers.  (I must pay tribute to the Court personnel. I was not new to the Court. I previously had the privilege of arguing cases there. But the graciousness of the Court’s personnel, like the grandeur of the building, never failed to excite my admiration.) As the hour hand of the Court’s great clock at last moved to 10, the Justices emerged from behind the crimson curtain behind the bench and took their seats, and the Court’s Marshal proclaimed in a stentorian voice:

"The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!"

As the first order of business, the Chief Justice arranged for the admission of lawyers to the Bar of the Court, thus enabling them to practice before the Court. I always found the ritual moving. A lawyer already a member of the Court’s Bar would move the admission of other lawyers from his state’s bar. Once all these lawyers were introduced, the Chief Justice administered the oath for Bar membership. These lawyers came from all over the country, and as a lawyer, I felt a kinship with them and a sense of community that extended across the nation. The Chief Justice then summoned counsel for the petitioner in the first case on the calendar to begin her or his argument. Usually, both sides to the case had a half hour and the petitioner could reserve a small portion of that time for rebuttal.  Typically the Court scheduled two arguments for the morning, so that arguments ended around noon. On a couple of our visits, there was a third argument heard after lunch, at 1 p.m.

The cases that my class and I heard were scheduled well after the date Justice Ginsburg’s assistant set for our visit. Thus, I had no choice in the cases my students would hear. While my hope was that they would hear some ground-breaking constitutional law case, that almost never happened. Instead, they more usually heard cases involving difficult issues of statutory interpretation, such as the scope of workers compensation for workers employed on deep-sea oil rigs, covered under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, or which federal court – the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals or a federal district court – had jurisdiction to review decisions of a Civil Service administrative agency involving “mixed claims” – claims involving violations of both civil service regulations and anti-discrimination laws. One year we did hear two important Fourth Amendment search and seizure cases. And last year we heard an important case involving the retroactive application of the Eighth Amendment principle barring life-without-parole sentences for crimes committed when the defendant was a minor, except in the rare case where the sentencing judge could conclude that the defendant lacked the capacity for rehabilitation.

Despite the esoteric nature of some of the cases, the students came to appreciate the wide variety of the cases the Court heard, their impact on individual lives, and the difficult considerations of what justice and the rule of law required. And they were sufficiently engaged by these cases, to energetically discuss the merits of the arguments we just heard, the personalities and perspectives of the Justices as they questioned the lawyers, and the quality of the contesting lawyers’ advocacy. These discussions usually took place at our lunches in the Supreme Court cafeteria, during the interlude between the oral arguments and our afternoon meeting with Justice Ginsburg.

2019 Portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with students at U.S. Supreme Court

After lunch, we headed for the conference room where we were to meet with Justice Ginsburg, frequently stopping on the way to look at the photographs or portraits of Justices from bygone eras and, my favorite, the greater-than-life marble statue of a seated Chief Justice John Marshall with quotations from his most famous opinions engraved on the wall behind him and with which the students were familiar from the required readings for the course.

We then proceeded to the room where we were to meet with Justice Ginsburg. For many years the meeting took place in the ornate West Conference Room, which was decorated with portraits of former Justices, including John Jay, the first Chief Justice and an alumnus of Columbia College, when it was still called King’s College. In more recent years, the meetings were held in the Lawyers Lounge, a spacious and comfortable room, where on the morning of oral arguments, the advocates could do their last-minute preparations for their argument before the Court. I found some irony in the portrait of Justice Henry Billings Brown, on the front wall of the room. Justice Brown was the author of the infamous opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 case that established the principle of “separate but equal.”

We took our seats and waited for Justice Ginsburg to arrive, influenced by the solemnity of the surroundings and the anticipation of her entry to remain tensely silent or whispering. When the Justice appeared we hastily rose to our feet and she immediately asked us to be seated.

In the early years of our visits, Justice Ginsburg would begin by delivering a short introductory talk, often about the progress of women in the legal profession and her own early experiences when women were a tiny minority at law school viewed by some as interlopers inconsiderately taking seats away from men and, on graduation, unable to find jobs at law firms. Justice Ginsburg then devoted most of the meeting to answering questions from the students.  In more recent years, she dispensed with the opening statement and, after a brief comment, often about the arguments we heard earlier, opened the floor to the students.

The students’ questions and Justice Ginsburg’s responses covered a wide range of topics that included Justice Ginsburg’s background, her career, the operations of the Court, her standards for choosing law clerks and their role, the value of oral argument and amicus briefs, relationships among the Justices, her own and other Justices’ theories of constitutional interpretation, what it was like when, after Justice O’Connor’s retirement, Justice Ginsburg was the sole woman on the Court, her friendship with Justice Scalia, their mutual interest in opera, advice about how to prepare for law school, Justice Ginsburg’s favorite judicial opinions, including her favorites among her own opinions, her love of opera, her favorite books and what she was reading at the time and much more.

Her responses were always interesting and illuminating, but what students mostly took away from the meetings were lasting impressions of her personality and her manner. At first sight, she appeared a small, frail person but as soon as she began to speak that impression vanished. She spoke in a soft but clearly audible voice and in a calm and deliberate manner. She showed respect for the students, taking each of their questions seriously and pausing to formulate her response and then pausing again during her response to elaborate further and expand on her answer. She was serious and yet unpretentious and had a wonderful sense of humor and an inspiring optimism. She showed great respect for her fellow Justices and devotion to her work on the Court and the law.  She was generous with her time.  We expected the meeting to last no more than 30 to 45 minutes but it often lasted an hour or more. She stood for the entire duration of the meeting, even during last year’s meeting, when she had already been through a long struggle with cancer. And she gladly stood with us at the end of the meeting for a group photo in response to the students’ requests.

I remember that Justice Ginsburg left the class on an incredibly hopeful note.  She expressed that despite the current polarized state of the country, she had hope that people will come together again.  She had a strong belief that people could co-exist with different political leanings (she cited her friendship with Justice Scalia as an example), and she had faith in the legal system.

Student remembrance

Year after year students told me that this meeting was a profound and inspiring experience that they would treasure for the rest of their lives.  But I should let the students speak for themselves. Here are some representative comments I received in response to a request for reminiscences I made to former students in my 2018 and 2019 classes, to help me prepare this essay:

To me, Justice Ginsburg's steadfast belief in the value of her work, coupled with her humility, is what stood out to me from our meeting. I remember one of my classmates asked Justice Ginsburg what kept her going in difficult times, such as in the various instances that she battled cancer and continued to work while receiving treatment, and she simply said, "I get out of bed every morning knowing that I have an important job to do and I'm going to go do it." I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to that effect. It was incredible to see the integrity with which Justice Ginsburg approached her work and her conviction that she was going to contribute to the betterment of society every day. 

I was also impressed by the fact that although Justice Ginsburg has paved the way for so many women in various arenas, she made a point of acknowledging the women who paved the way for her, like Pauli Murray. Although we have a tendency to view Justice Ginsburg as a lone iconic figure, she made sure to convey to our class that any social progress is a cumulative rather than single-handed effort. 

Lastly, I remember that Justice Ginsburg left the class on an incredibly hopeful note. She expressed that despite the current polarized state of the country, she had hope that people will come together again. She had a strong belief that people could co-exist with different political leanings (she cited her friendship with Justice Scalia as an example), and she had faith in the legal system.

Our class was ecstatic to meet Justice Ginsburg, especially after reading a few of her powerful dissents in class. As Justice Ginsburg entered the room, we fell silent. Justice Ginsburg spoke in a soft voice as she welcomed the class to the Supreme Court. We asked questions ranging from whether the Supreme Court has become more partisan in its rulings to whether there has been an increase in cases making their way to the Supreme Court in the past few years. The Justice answered all of these questions with eloquence and respect for each of my classmates who asked a question. Going to the Supreme Court as a first-generation Bangladeshi-American has been a highlight of my life. Yet, the greatest honor was being in the presence of a Justice who has worked to protect the rights that my family and I enjoy in this great country. Justice Ginsburg’s mentions of collegiality and compromise within the Supreme Court and within the law in general was timely in light of today’s political climate. I hope the next generation of lawyers is able to see the practical impact of the law just like Justice Ginsburg.

I was made to realize how much America depended on Ruth Ginsburg upon meeting her just last year on a trip to the Supreme Court with my Constitutional Law seminar. It wasn’t hard to be in awe of her, her eloquence, her charisma. In the span of a thirty-minute conversation with Ruth, my classmates and I were left laughing, gaping in awe, and moved to tears by the thoughts that were shared. What I remember most is that the conversation ended on a hopeful note. Despite the increasingly polarized state of America, she wished to remind us that so much progress had been made during her lifetime. In her memory, we all have the ability to hope and act upon that hope, so that people will be able to say the same about ours. May her memory be a revolution.

The greatest thing I remember about meeting Justice Ginsburg was how self-effacing and witty she could clearly be, even as she inspired reverence. The memory that stands out most to me is when, after everyone stood when she entered the room, she said “sit down” in a way that told me she could only be from Brooklyn (as a fellow Brooklynite, I’d like to think I have some version of ESP). Her patience answering our questions was remarkable, and I appreciated the way she described the day-to-day of being on the Court in a way that humanized the institution.

I think what immediately struck me about the Justice was just how unbelievably sharp she was. Another thing that I noticed was how she very thoughtfully paused after receiving certain questions. I remember asking Justice Ginsburg about her jurisprudence and overall judicial philosophy. While I unfortunately cannot recall a specific quotation, I remember one particular moment where she emphasized how Constitutional interpretation cannot be insulated from new circumstances and challenges in our society. What I found particularly interesting was her treatment of “Founder’s intent” — and her belief that the Founders themselves would have wanted a Constitution that was attentive to change. Justice Ginsburg closed by emphasizing that her approach to the law was ultimately grounded in fairness — and I think that now, more than ever, her philosophy carries tremendous weight.

My greatest memory of our meeting with her is perhaps her calculated thought process: she was such a small person but she was razor sharp.  As an introvert myself, I appreciated that she took the time to formulate a succinct response to our questions. I was moved by her response when asked which case she wished she had ruled on: Plessy v Ferguson. Such a landmark case, only one justice dissented back in 1896. She recognized the disastrous ruling and I can only wonder what she would have written in her dissent.

The night before meeting her, I had gone to a local bookstore in D.C. to purchase a copy of her book In My Own Words. Following our time for questions, we had the opportunity to shake Justice Ginsburg's hand, at which point I nervously asked if she might be willing to sign the book. I remember trying to steady my hands as I held the book out and explained that it was for my father's 70th birthday. Someone with the Justice interrupted to explain she would not be signing anything or taking individual photos with us. But she took the book from me and said ‘" won't be signing anything else, but 70 is an important year. What's your father's name?’" In the book she wrote, "To Warren, Every best wish on your 70th birthday." I will never forget Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg advising our class to become prima donnas. Around the time of our visit to the Supreme Court, I was looking for opportunities to pursue for a few years between college and law school. I asked her whether she had any ideas, and without hesitation, she offered, "I would join the opera and become a prima donna."

In October 2019, my classmates and I had the privilege to meet Justice Ginsburg at the Supreme Court. When asked what she would have done with her life had she not become a Justice, RBG laughed, paused, and with a smile across her face, she proclaimed, "I would have been a diva." The moment of RBG telling us that she would have been a diva had she not become a lawyer will forever be seared into my memory and has offered me hope and positivity in this tumultuous political environment. The class and our trip to meet Justice Ginsburg has empowered me to do the organizing work that I am doing today and will push me to work extremely hard over the remaining two weeks to save our democracy and fight for change.

I remember asking the Justice what she might do differently if she were drafting the Constitution today. She chuckled and said she would change a lot. She elaborated, explaining she would include an Equal Rights Amendment, get rid of the Electoral College, and correct decisions of the Court like Citizens United . . . . Justice Ginsburg then referenced the play, What the Constitution Means to Me. She described how the play ends with a question of whether or not the Constitution should be kept. She described how the audience voted mostly to keep it because “God knows what would happen if we drafted the constitution today."

The meeting usually ended with Justice Ginsburg saying she had to get back to work. After she posed for a group photo with the class, the Justice exchanged a brief greeting with me and left the room. The students and I gathered our belongings and left the Court. The sight that greeted us as we emerged was exhilarating. We were fortunate that most of the meetings took place on bright October days. A dazzling sun illuminated the Court’s facade and the Capitol across the way. We broke into small groups, some lingering behind to take pictures of each other on the steps of the Court, others off to visit friends or family in the D.C. area and some of us began walking back to Union Station. I enjoyed walking with one or more students, as it gave me an opportunity to learn more about their interests and plans or answer questions about my own career and interests. Spending the day in this common venture brought us together and I always considered this one of the prime benefits of the visit. It was a turning point in the semester. We became a community of friends who shared a memorable experience and a common interest. I kept a note from a student which seemed to make this point. In it, he first thanked me “for an unforgettable and wonderful day at the Supreme Court” and the opportunity to hear arguments and meet Justice Ginsburg. He then added, “It was also wonderful spending the day with you and the other members of our class. I am really looking forward to the rest of the semester.”

On my return to New York after our visit last year, I wrote Justice Ginsburg a note thanking her on behalf of the students for the opportunity she gave them to see the Court in action and for the meeting with her which meant so much to them. I also told her that seeing her so energetically continue to perform her service to the nation caused me to put aside any thoughts of retiring from teaching that I might have had. I concluded the note by saying, “It was good to see you. I hope to have that good fortune again next year.” Sadly, it was not to be.

Justice Ginsburg’s death is a terrible loss, but she left an enduring legacy as an advocate, teacher, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge and Justice of the Supreme Court, and as an inspiring role model for so many people, including my students and me. For all of this, I offer this posthumous thank you.

[1]     This annual visit began with my predecessor, the late Jay Topkis, who was also my former law partner and mentor. I inherited the tradition when I began teaching the course in the fall of 2008, first with Jay, and thereafter by myself when Jay retired from teaching the course at the end of the fall 2008 semester.

[2]     My thanks to the Department of Political Science for the subsidy it provided the students for their travel expenses, for most of these visits.