The Notorious RBG: Justice Ginsburg raps on the past, the future, Antonin Scalia — and Biggie

The liberal icon turned pop-culture figure told a University of Chicago audience that she’s “optimistic” for the nation’s future but acknowledged she would like to see future justices appointed for their qualifications, not for how they are expected to vote on contentious cases.

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago for a conversation with Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts on Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Just weeks after announcing she received treatment for pancreatic cancer, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Monday reminded a Chicago crowd the nation has “come a long way,” while calling her rise to the top an “unrealistic” expectation back in her law school days, when women weren’t hired as lawyers, much less judges.

The liberal icon turned pop-culture figure said she’s “optimistic” for the nation’s future but acknowledged she would like to see future justices appointed for their qualifications, not for how they are expected to vote on contentious cases.

“I have seen enormous changes, and that’s what makes me optimistic for the future,” Ginsburg, 86, told a University of Chicago crowd. In a one-hour conversation, Ginsburg called the Supreme Court “the most collegial place” she’s ever worked — in a storied law career that began in 1959.

Outside court, Ginsburg said those concerned about the future should take solace in how many people think like them.

“It’s very hard to do anything as a loner, but if you get together with like-minded people, you can create a force for change. And if you look at things over the long haul, we have come a long way from how it was,” Ginsburg said when asked for words of encouragement for those fighting for democracy and equal rights around the world.

But she suggested people should focus on change that is possible.

Ginsburg called proposed changes to the U.S. Constitution — such as changing the Electoral College system — “more theoretical than real.”

“It’s largely a dream because our Constitution is ... hard to amend,” Ginsburg said. “I know that from experience.”

And a year after Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings divided the nation, Ginsburg — who was nominated by former President Bill Clinton and took her seat in 1993 — noted the hugely political nature of the confirmation process.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago for a conversation event with Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, Monday evening, Sept. 9, 2019. Ginsburg is

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago Monday.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“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.

Ginsburg said White House handlers had trained her for a tough line of questioning during her own confirmation hearings, including her time with the American Civil Liberties Union. She said she was prepared for any line of attack on the organization: “I said, ‘Just stop. Just stop because there’s nothing they can do that would lead me to be critical of the ACLU.’”

The ACLU wasn’t even brought up during her confirmation, she said.

“That wouldn’t have happened today,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg’s 2007 dissent from the majority in equal pay activist Lilly Ledbetter’s landmark wage rights case remains a decision that gave her “enormous satisfaction.”

The Supreme Court justice also shared lighthearted tales of her deep friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, saying the arch conservative and fellow opera aficionado would whisper jokes during oral arguments, and she struggled to avoid bursting into laughter.

”I miss him very much,” Ginsburg said.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Katherine Baicker, the dean of the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, moderated the event. She joked that she never knew she had so many friends, with all the requests for tickets to the packed event.

Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former first lady Amy Rule were among guests in the front row. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot later greeted Ginsburg after the event for a private reception at the university.

During her conversation with Ginsburg, Baicker brought out a Ginsburg bobblehead and asked the Supreme Court justice about her massive pop culture presence and being dubbed the “Notorious R.B.G.”

Ginsburg said she and the rapper “The Notorious B.I.G.” did share some common ground.

“We were both born and bred in Brooklyn, New York,” she said.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago for a conversation event with Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the University of Chicago for a conversation event with Harris School of Public Policy Dean Katherine Baicker. The RBG bobblehead doll sits on the table between them.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“I must say, sometimes it can be a little overwhelming when everyone wants to take my picture. I’m 86-years-old,” Ginsburg said. “If I were to go to, say Macy’s in Pentagon City in the old days, it was hard to find a salesperson.”

Ginsburg also fielded questions submitted by audience members, including one from an 11-year-old girl who wondered if she had always wanted to be a Supreme Court justice.

Ginsburg said when she attended law school in the 1950s, women made up “less than 3 percent of lawyers in the country.”

”It would have been an unrealistic expectation to think that I could someday be a judge,” she said.

Ginsburg credited the rise of women in law to to President Jimmy Carter, who appointed more than 25 District Court female judges, and 11 appellate judges, which included Ginsburg.

”No president has ever done better to the way it was,” Ginsburg said. “I think he deserves great credit for changing the complexion of the U.S. judiciary.”

And her own life.

“And then I began to think, ‘That might be a nice life for me.’”

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