Transcript: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation with Bill Moyers –

Posted By on February 15, 2020

SERENE JONES: There are few in our community that demonstrate all that Union stands for more than Judith and Bill Moyers. Ten years ago, I remember it very well, Bill Moyers started this lecture series in honor of Judiths 75th birthday. The lecture is one of a kind in that it honors global women leaders who have been deeply shaped by spiritual values and faith.

This evening you all are here and you know that no one better represents this extraordinary legacy than Judith Davidson Moyers. A church-going Texan by birth, Judiths life has been one long extended example of what a woman of spirit does.

Her prestigious awards are too numerous to name. Her work in higher education has been constant and diligent. Her leadership role as the president of Public Affairs Television, the critical role that she played in the programs and documentaries, the voluminous programs and documentaries produced by her and Bill, programs calling us to conscience, exciting moral courage.

Judith, mother and grandmother, were so happy that all three of her children are with us tonight. She is indubitable, a constant source of energy, innovative ideas and vision. She and Bill are recipients of Unions highest award, the Union Medal, and the crowning achievement, as I see it, was her vital service on Unions own board of trustees. Her heart is big. Her mind is brilliant. Her faith is deep and undaunted. And her arms are strong enough to hold the breadth of our humanity. Would you join me in welcoming a true woman of spirit, Judith Davidson Moyers.

JUDITH DAVIDSON MOYERS: Thank you so much. I told Serene just this minute, Thats a little over the top. It has been my pleasure for ten years now to suggest to Serene and the dean and the faculty which of the millions of Women of Spirit we should invite to come to Union. All over the globe, women continue to take action to change the world. Here at Union, especially.

You know, its been generations now where students have combined scholarship and activism. In the past ten years, we have had fabulous women here for this Women of Spirit honor. You have the list. Its in this, and so Im not going to call their names, which breaks my heart, because usually I do, and take time with each one. But youll see. But dont do it right now.

Each of these women has taken action in different spheres. Climate change. The environment. Poverty. Human rights. Labor organizing. Politics. And reform of our criminal justice system. One even by writing Pulitzer Prize-winning novels and essays. That was Marilyn Robinson.

Tonight we are honored to bring you a very special guest to be in conversation with journalist Bill Moyers. You all know Bill. Hes almost 50 years in television, and has 40 Emmy awards, so I dont need to say anymore. I could. Believe me. Weve been married 65 years. Where is he? And I worked with him closely every day for 30 years. And were still married.

My introduction will be brief, because we all want to hear from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Very few Americans in our history can match the role she has played, does play in our democracy. When she went to the Harvard Law School she was only one of nine women, and there were 500 men. And she had to have her classwork, of course, and she also juggled being a wife and mother. At law school.

She faced resistance from some faculty and administrators, but she became the first female on the Harvard Law Review. Her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, came down with cancer while they were still in law school, and she attended his classes as well as hers and took those notes. And typed those papers. For both of them.

She had to transfer for her final year and came to Columbia Law School. No surprise, she rose to be the top of her class. However, after graduation it wasnt easy for a woman to get a job in a law firm. Youll hear more about that. She did law research and finally she had a faculty position at the Rutgers Law School.

Later she became the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School. There, while directing the Womens Rights Project of the ACLU, she took six landmark cases on gender equality to the Supreme Court. President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the D.C. Court of Appeals, where she served for 13 years. And in 1993, President Clinton appointed her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Wow. Only the second woman to take the bench.

Both at the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court she established that there was such a thing as sex discrimination. That had not been established. And, that that violated the Constitution. This changed the landscape of gender-based law.

Throughout her career she has championed the equal citizens stature, constantly reminding all that the Constitution protects the rights of everyone. At the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg has also been a force for consensus building, balance and decency.

She has provided a strong voice of dissent from conservative majority opinions, for example, rebuking the majoritys willful demolition, her words, willful demolition of the Voting Rights Act. She continues to inspire us and protect us, and we thank her as a Women of Spirit. Its my honor to welcome Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Thank you. Please sit down.

BILL MOYERS: And that is just the Republican caucus. Welcome indeed. As you can see, Justice Ginsburg, its a full house here to greet you. The chapel is packed with Union faculty, staff, administration, friends. Guests have come from the Jewish Theological Seminary across the way, and from the religion departments of Barnard and Columbia, your law school alma mater. Still more in the balcony yonder, and in a room you and I cant see, the overflowing room, its overflowing. And many are joining us by streaming. So the Union community has gathered and we thank you very much for coming.

First, a personal note. Two weeks ago, Judith and I were at the Library of Congress. The LBJ Foundation was presenting the Justice with its annual Liberty and Justice Award for All. And they had asked me to do a brief tribute to the Justice, so I spent weeks plunging into her work. The books about her. The biography. Biographies. The most recent and excellent book called Conversations with RBG, which is just out and is a terrific book.

And especially her briefs. I have read briefs in my life, but never as many briefs as I have read in the last three months. And what I discovered in both the dissenting briefs and the affirming briefs is a remarkable style, a remarkable body of prose that is lean and muscular as if itd been in with a first rate trainer for the last 30 years. And that was picturesque and descriptive and insightful. I never enjoyed reading anything legal as much as I did those briefs.

And then I discovered a little known fact about her. Maybe some of you do who know her well personally. But she had studied European literature at Cornell in the 50s with Vladimir Nabokov. And he had obviously had, reportedly had, and substantially had an impact on this unusual, remarkable, visible and particular prose.

So in your spare time, I urge you to get those briefs, Im going to mention a few of then a little later, and read them. They are remarkable literature. So I want to begin by asking you, Justice Ginsburg, what did you take away from that time with Nabokov that you feel definitely shifted your way of writing?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: We called him Nabokov, the various pronunciations. He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. I think English was his third language. His first language was French and then Russian. And he explained why he liked writing in English better than other languages.

And he gave his example. The white horse. Well, if you say it in French, its le cheval blanc. But when you say cheval, you see a brown horse. You have to adjust your image to make it white. But because we put the adjective first, when the horse comes, its already white.

BILL MOYERS: it true that he influenced your using the phrase "gender discrimination" instead of "sex discrimination," and that you made the change? JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: That change was brought about by my secretary at Columbia Law School. Millicent Tryan (PH) was her name. She said to me one day, Ive been typing these briefs and audibles for you, and the word sex juts out all over. Dont you know that the men you are addressing because the federal bench was then virtually all male. Dont you know that their first association with the word sex is not what you want to be on their minds.

So choose a gender-neutral word, a grammar book term, and that will ward off distracting associations. So I thought that she was so right, and I began to use gender-based discrimination. And the court picked it up too. So now you will see gender used.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever think of giving up law for a novel? Did you ever think of becoming a novelist after that experience?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG:I loved the law. I loved the study of law. Unlike many law students, I thoroughly enjoyed my three years in law school. I dont think I have the capacity to be a good novelist. But in the trade, I have been in for goodness knows how many years its hard to believe Ive been on the Supreme Court for 27 years. BILL MOYERS: Right. Do you have in your head how many briefs you have written?


BILL MOYERS: Yes, opinions.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Hundreds and hundreds, because before I was on the Supreme Court I was for 13 years on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit. In those 13 years I wrote hundreds of opinions, and on the Supreme Court, I dont have an accurate count of them, but there is a record of how many, and theyre in the hundreds.

Theres an opinion of the court in every case, but then every justice is free to write separately either a concurring opinion, joining in on the majoritys judgment, but for different reasons, or a dissenting opinion. And you perhaps noticed a difference between an opinion that speaks for the court.

At our conferences Ill take careful notes of what my colleagues thought about a case, and if am assigned the opinion, I will try to incorporate other views, because Im writing for the court. But if Im writing a dissent, I dont have to worry about what the others


JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: thought. I have a free hand.

BILL MOYERS: Well, if you had become a novelist, wed have missed some marvelous opinions, and Im so glad I had that chance to read them. But it takes me back to the question why did you become a lawyer?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Goes back to my undergraduate days at Cornell University. It was not a great time for our country. It was the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin. There was a tremendous red scare in the country. There was the House UnAmerican Activities Committee and the Senate comparable investigating committee, calling people, many of them in the entertainment business, or writers, having them come before Congress to try to justify why they had belonged to a pink-tinged organization in their youth, in the 1930s, at height of the Depression.

I had a great professor for constitutional law at Cornell. His name was Robert E.Cushman. And he wanted me to be aware that our country was straying from its most basic values. That is the right to think, speak and write as you believe. And not as a big brother government tells you is the right way to think, speak and write.

And he made me aware that there were lawyers standing up for these people, reminding our Congress that we had a First Amendment that guarantees freedom of expression. We have a Fifth Amendment protecting us against self-incrimination.

I drew from that that being a lawyer was a pretty nifty thing to be, because you could earn a living, but you could also do things for which you were not paid that would make conditions a little better in your community. So it was that idea of a lawyer is more than someone who works for a days pay, but someone who has a skill that can help make things a little better.

BILL MOYERS: There runs through your life and your work a deep moral thread. A moral imperative. Where does that come from?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Where did it? I dont know in particular where you drew that from, but I have often quoted an expression that Martin Luther King was fond of, and that is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And I believe that fervently.

Ive seen it in my own lifetime. Things may not be now as we would like them to be, but think of how far we have come. For example, I grew up when World War II was raging, and we were fighting a war against odious racism. And yet, our own troops, until the very end of the war, were rigidly separated


JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: by race. That was wrong, and I think World War II was a major contributor to the Supreme Court eventually ending apartheid in America, with the Brown v. Board decision.

BILL MOYERS: 1954 I believe.



JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: In 54. But you think of the way things were, the racial injustice that existed in our country, the confined opportunities open to women. It was the closed door era for women, and I have seen those doors open wide. Ive seen what was once the closed door replaced by a welcome mat. So I am an optimist, because I know that there is the possibility of change if people really care to make it happen.

And thats important, because I never could have done what I did if there hadnt been a groundswell among women in the late 60s and throughout the 70s, wanting to tear down the barriers. Wanting to free both women and men to be you and me. To follow your own talents


JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG:as far as it could take you.

BILL MOYERS: When I ask you that question about that moral imperative, I thought you were perhaps going to come back with something about the Hebrew prophets. And I did my graduate work in theology and church history, and the only courses I came close to flunking were two years of Hebrew. If I hadnt been married to Judith I would never have come out of it.

But I did spend enough time with that to think I heard, in some of your opinions, that cadence of the prophet. That outrage that comes with the sight of injustice. And I found where you said, after you took the oath at the Supreme Court, I am a judge born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice runs through the entirety of the Jewish tradition. I hope in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States I will have the strength and courage to remain constant in the service of that demand. When I read that, I realized that explains the Biblical command on the wall that


BILL MOYERS: was in your chamber. Is it still in your chamber?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Its from Deuteronomy. And it says, Justice, justice shall thou pursue, that thou may thrive. Yes. And also what I came away with from my Jewish heritage is a love of learning. Learning is highly prized among Jews. My father came here from Russia when he was 13. He went to night school to learn English. He never had any formal education except Hebrew school in any country.

My mother was the first child in her large family to be born in the U.S.A. Education was tremendously important to them. And I grew up learning to love to read. My fondest memories as a child were sitting on my mothers lap while she read to me. So yes, its the opposition to injustice and wanting to do something about it. Theres a Jewish expression about the obligation to help repair tears in the society in which we live.

BILL MOYERS: I came upon an editorial you wrote in your high school paper, I believe, in which you did an amazing account of the importance of the Magna Carta. Or the ten commandments first. The Magna Carta, the 1681 or 91


BILL MOYERS: Bill of Rights in England, the Declaration of Independence, which marked the framework for a new government, and the UN charter that was adopted


BILL MOYERS: and how did you at that age bring those documents together in whats a brief but remarkable exposition?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: It was in the eighth grade. World War II had just ended and there was great optimism. There was an organization with a name something like the World Federalists. Everyone was hoping for this one world that would live at peace, and that the rule of law would take over.

It hasnt worked out quite as well as the expectation at the time, but it was very, very hopeful time. And the UN charter was the ideal one world. At peace. Was alive. It didnt take too long before the Iron Curtain came down and we began what endured for so many years.

BILL MOYERS: But you were optimistic, despite the fact that you were born in the midst of the Depression. You were born in 33.


BILL MOYERS: I was born in 34. Judith was born in 35. So weve got between us 250-some odd years. And it was after the Depression and after World War II. I think both us were quite optimistic then, even though we were too young to know what optimism was. But we were hopeful about the future.

But something else I almost brought it tonight and I thought it would take too long. So that was in the eighth grade. Was it in high school then you came upon that writing by Anne Frank in which she and Id never seen this before. I read her diary. Seen the documentaries. But she talks about the plight of women.


BILL MOYERS: And why women are taking the subordination to men. She said its stupid.


BILL MOYERS: She says, Its stupid. And she says, I can only explain it by the fact that, well, men are more physical, men do the work and men can do as they please, or something like that. And then she says, I just hope women will wake up one day and realize whats been done to them, and do something about it.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Yes. And she was 15 years old.

BILL MOYERS: Fifteen years old. Where did you find that?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Its in the diary toward the end. It was one of the last entries before she was sent off to I think Bergen-Belsen, where she died, I think about a month short of her 16th birthday.

BILL MOYERS: Can you remember what you thought when you read that about women in Anne Franks diary?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I dont remember the first time I encountered it, because I read the diaries a few times. But it was a real eye-opener. I knew that these situations, these conditions existed, but I thought, Well, thats just the way it is. Theres not much you can do about it. Youll have to cope with it. But thats a remarkable entry in her diary.


JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: And she mentioned some progress too. She said, In some countries theyve been given equal rights.

BILL MOYERS: Things were better. Right. For women. Who were your role models when you were a young girl? I know one was your mother, Celia.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I had a fictional role model and a real one. Youre right that my mother was a constant encourager, telling me, Be independent, whatever else you do. It would be nice if you met and married Prince Charming, but be prepared to fend for yourself.

The fictional heroine was Nancy Drew, because most books for children at that time were of the Jane and Jack variety, where Jack was running and doing all kinds of fun things, and Jane or Jill was sitting in a pretty pink party dress. But Nancy Drew was a doer. She was leading around her boyfriend. She had adventures. She solved mysteries.

The real woman who was a heroine for me was Amelia Earhart. I cant say that I had women judges as a model, except for Deborah in the Bible, because women werent on the bench. I mean even when I started law school women were only 3 percent of the lawyers across the country. I think young women today have many women who inspire them. Theres no closed doors for women anymore. Women can be admirals. They can be chief judges. So it was Nancy Drew and Amelia Earhart.

BILL MOYERS: What about the Greek deities?

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Oh yes. My mother took me on weekly trips to the library. And while she got her hair done, I would pick out the five books Id take home. And Greek mythology I loved. My closest friend growing up was Catholic, and she had all these saints and I had nothing but this one God. So thats when I became a lover of Greek mythology.

BILL MOYERS: Athena in particular, I believe.

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Oh, Pallas Athena, who gave her father a headache.

BILL MOYERS: She is said to have been I was struck by this when I came across it, because when I was about that age, growing up in a small town in east Texas, walking down East Burleson Street. They had just opened the new, small library built by the Business and Professional Women there, our first real external library outside of the courthouse.

And I went in and I picked out two books to take home. First books that Id ever had. One was Jules Vernes Around the World in 80 Days, and the other was a book of Greek heroes. And about the same time you were reading about Athena, I was reading about the males who were often the object of their wrath.

So we have that in common. That framed an issue with me. Jules Verne enhanced my desire to be a journalist, because hed travel the world and did it on somebody elses expense account. And I liked that. But Athena was said to have established the rule of law when she


BILL MOYERS: tried Orestes? Right?


BILL MOYERS: For the murder of her for the murder oher mother, who had killed his father.


BILL MOYERS: And so she was said to have put down the first frame for the rule of justice.


BILL MOYERS: And I wondered if you saw something in the future for you because of that?



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Transcript: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Conversation with Bill Moyers -

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