by Karl Kurtz
The most interesting session at last week's National Conference on Citizenship was a conversation between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her interviewer, Tom Susman, director of the government affairs office of the American Bar Association. The two have known each other for a long time. As a Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, Susman shepherded Justice Ginsburg's nomination to the Federal Appeals Court through the Senate in 1981. Their rapport was evident in an engaging conversation.
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In his blog on civic engagement, Peter Levine comments on Justice Ginsburg's remarks at NCOC, "It's helpful for the Supreme Court--and the judicial branch in general--to endorse civic engagement and civic education." He goes on to quote her:
"The courts are reactive institutions. Why was Sally Reed's case before the Court in 1971? Because there was a women's movement. Why was there activity in the 50s and 60s? Because there was a burgeoning Civil Rights movement. The courts will react ..., not to the weather of the day, but to the climate of the era." I think her point was the importance of active citizenship in the process of reinterpreting and strengthening the law.
Justice Ginsburg reflected on her Senate confirmation process for the Supreme Court. She said that she and Justice Breyer both came on the Court within about a year of each other by identical votes of 96-3. She commented that these were the last of the consensual confirmation processes on Supreme Court nominations. One reason for the relative calm of these two confirmations, she speculated, was that the immediately previous Court nominee had been Justice Clarence Thomas. "I think his confirmation process embarrassed the Senate," she said.
Before serving on the Federal Court of Appeals, Justice Ginsburg had been a very public and strong advocate of women's rights and had served as general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union. She said that neither of those subjects even came up during her Senate confirmation process. "Can you imagine that happening today?" she asked.