Justice, justice shall you pursue
Ginsburg at Beth Israel
By Jenn Director Knudsen
article created on: 2008-09-15T00:00:00
Rarely does a U.S. Supreme Court Justice visit Portland, let alone beneath the Byzantine dome of Congregation Beth Israel. So far, it’s occurred only once in 150 years.
Inaugurating Beth Israel’s 150th anniversary celebration, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited the Reform synagogue in Northwest Portland Saturday, Sept. 13, offering first a brief lecture and then responses to panelists and audience members’ questions. She side-stepped political commentary.
All the while calm, methodical, expansive in her knowledge and sometimes quippy in her answers, Ginsburg held court before a silent and appreciative sanctuary crowd of 1,000 and nearly 100 others listening via video stream in the Blumauer Auditorium.
Of Ginsburg’s visit, Rabbi
Michael Cahana said in an interview prior to the evening’s start, “We wanted it to be a gift to the entire community,” continuing Beth Israel’s involvement at the forefront of social action. “It’s very important to me that it continues to be.”
Oregon Court of Appeals Judge and Beth Israel member Ellen Rosenblum, who helped secure Ginsburg’s visit, formally introduced the Justice.
Ginsburg, 75, the first Jewish woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court in its 219-year history, received one of three standing ovations as she first took the podium for her prepared comments, “The Man Who Would’ve Been the First Jewish Justice.”
In a precise yet languid manner, Ginsburg reported that 63 years prior to Louis D. Brandeis’ historic 1916 appointment to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson, Southern sympathizer Judah P. Benjamin could have been the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice.
A “celebrated lawyer in antebellum New Orleans,” Benjamin was nominated to the highest court in the land in 1853 by President Millard Fillmore, Ginsburg said. He declined, instead becoming “the first acknowledged Jew” to hold a U.S. Senate seat where he gained a reputation as a great orator.
Benjamin married a Catholic woman and didn’t observe Jewish holidays or traditions; still, “he was ridiculed for his Jewishness in the press” and once was called Judah “Iscariot” Benjamin, Ginsburg said.
Fast-forward to today: Ginsburg and colleague Associate Justice Stephen G. Breyer are two Jews on the nine-member Court. “Our religion simply wasn’t a part of the consideration” process of President Bill Clinton when appointing them in 1993 and 1994, respectively, she said.
Referencing her own upbringing, the beige, pant-suit-clad justice asked rhetorically, “What is the difference between a New York garment worker and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation. My own life bears witness.”
Then, a three-member panel sitting center stage on the synagogue’s bima took turns asking the justice six questions on which the group—along with Cahana’s input—had collaborated but hadn’t shared in advance with Ginsburg.
The panelists were Susan Graber, Beth Israel board of trustees member and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit who also secured Ginsburg’s visit; David Sarasohn, an Oregonian columnist who, along with wife Lisa, is the 150th Celebration Committee chair; and lawyer Michael H. Simon, board of trustees president. The Oseran Family Endowment Fund underwrote the justice’s appearance.
Panelists’ topics included the 2004 Bush-Gore presidential decision; life on the country’s highest court as the only female Justice; whether term limits should be imposed on justices; and key, memorable decisions she’s made from the bench.
When asked why diversity among members of the U.S. Supreme Court is important, a direct reference to Ginsburg and Breyer’s Judaism and oblique reference to African-American Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Ginsburg said court members from historically minority groups bring a wider perspective to the cases brought before them.
“I have no doubt the court is wiser for the variety among us,” she said.
Ginsburg also talked about influencing changes to the wording on the document certifying admission to the Bar of the Supreme Court. It always had included the phrase “…in the year of our Lord,” and she protested that to Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
She said a colleague, whom she declined to name, told her, “It was good enough for Brandeis” and the other former Jewish justices, to which she retorted, “It’s not good enough for Ginsburg.”
Now, she said, lawyers can choose whether the phrase “…in the year of our Lord” is printed on their certificates. And, she added to much applause, “We no longer sit at the High Holy Days.”
Some of Ginsburg’s responses showed impromptu humor and humility.
For example, when asked about the absence of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired in 2006, she jested, “I miss very much being called Justice O’Connor.”
And, when asked to recount a favorite opinion or dissent, Ginsburg quickly replied, smiling, “That’s like asking which of your four grandchildren is your favorite.
She did share her biggest challenge: “Eleventh-hour petitions in capital (death penalty) cases,” she said.
“That’s the part of my business that I do not like at all and probably never will,” she said.
Written audience questions the panelists read to Ginsburg numbered 200 but there was time only for three. One, posed by a 14-year-old, asked Ginsburg what she’d say to a young person interested in pursuing law.
Ginsburg said she entered college planning to become a history teacher but soon realized the positive influence one lawyer could have on states, if not the country.
“I have found my life in the law tremendously rewarding,” she said, noting her daughter Jane C. Ginsburg is a Columbia Law School professor, and her granddaughter is considering studying law in college. Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, also a law professor, and daughter accompanied Ginsburg to Portland.
Ginsburg said she’s encouraged by her “supreme” colleague, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens, 88; “I’m hoping to last at least that long.”
In addition to the silver mezuzah that adorns the door to her chambers, she has a framed phrase from Deuteronomy she holds very dear on three of its walls and on one table.
Tzedek tzedek tirdof—Justice, justice shall you pursue.
At the end of the two-hour event, Beth Israel member Karla Green reflected on Ginsburg’s appearance.
“It’s not that I was in awe, but I was so pleased to be in her presence and hear her remarks,” Green said. “And I think it’s magnificent she would speak to our community.”