Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a key figure in several major cases and landmark decisions. But on Monday, she made local history by becoming the first member of the nation's highest court to receive an honorary degree from the University at Buffalo. Her appearance and remarks were just the first of two scheduled stops.
Ginsburg delivered brief remarks and later engaged in a question-and-answer session with Law School dean Aviva Abramovsky. In both, Ginsburg spoke of the challenges she faced while entering law school, the peers who are only now receiving due recognition and the cases and decisions in which she directly participated. Among the most notable cases was United States v. Virginia, for which she wrote the opinion. It was that case which opened Virginia Military Institute to women.
"True, we have not reached nirvana. But the progress I have seen in my lifetime makes me optimistic for the future," she said. "Our communities, nation and world will be increasingly improved as women achieve their rightful place in all fields of human endeavor."
Ginsburg, when asked what inspired her pursuit of social justice, pointed to the late Cornell law professor Robert Cushman and their mutual distaste of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his effort to find a "communist around every corner" during his notorious campaign.
"I spoke earlier about Professor Cushman at Cornell and the notion that lawyers could make a difference," Ginsburg replied. "Lawyers appearing with their clients before the investigating committees, and reminding our Congress that we have a First Amendment, that guarantees freedom of expression. We have a Fifth Amendment that protects us against self-incrimination."
She also spoke of the irony of how the U.S. military divided its troops along racial lines, all while fighting against those who were carrying out the Holocaust. She noted how, as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case was being heard, foreign sources including the Soviet Union were calling the United States "racist."
Then came the 1970s and the chance to chip away at gender inequalities.
"When society was ready to listen, when courts were ready to listen, what an exhilarating time that was for me," Ginsburg said. "We had a list of all the provisions of the U.S. Code that differentiated on the basis of gender. Those were our targets. Inside a decade, almost all of those differentials had gone."
She acknowledged two of her predecessors on the high court. One was John Paul Stevens, whom she considered a "very good listener" while describing patience and a willingness to listen and learn as the traits found in all good judges.
She also spoke of her friendship with the late Antonin Scalia. Though they often times found themselves on the opposite side of an argument, they shared many common interests. Most notably, a love of opera.
Hearing how two people with often differing views could enjoy a close friendship was something which resonated strongly for Abisha Vijayashanthar, a third-year law student and president of UB's Student Bar Association.
"Just because you have differing views, it does not make you any better," she said. "It doesn't make you more distinct in your profession or where you are as a person. To hear that somebody with completely different views than her, and they were able to maintain not just a good relationship but an actual true friendship, there's no excuse for anyone else. It's really important that she brought that to the stage today."
A few times during the presentation, Ginsburg's alias "The notorious RBG" was brought up. Ginsburg herself noted that she and The Notorious B.I.G., the deceased rapper whose real name was Christopher Wallace, shared a common thread as natives of Brooklyn. But Vijayashanthar sees Ginsburg as someone who hasn't forgotten her roots, nor her mission.
"We all see her as this huge public figure, but she's just a woman," she said. "She's just a woman from Brooklyn and I think she keeps here, in the back of her mind, continuing to pursue social justice. Hearing her speak, it made me feel like I can do it, too."
In addition to being the first among her peers to receive an honorary degree from UB, Ginsburg is also the first Supreme Court Justice to set foot on a UB campus. People of her stature are generally more likely to appear toward the end of a school year, or at a commencement ceremony. But this is how UB marked its first day of classes for the fall semester. UB president Satish Tripathi was elated.
"She talked about her career, she talked about human rights, she talked about women's rights. And on the first day of school, for our students and in particular for our law students to come and meet with such an iconic figure, it was great," he said. "And considering that she just went through treatment, and coming here and talking about what she's passionate about, that actually resonates with what we are passionate about. So, it's fantastic."
Justice Ginsburg's visit comes just days after Supreme Court officials confirmed she recently completed three weeks of radiation treatment on a localized tumor in her pancreas.
Her appearance and reception of an honorary degree was the first of two scheduled stops Monday. Ginsburg was scheduled to speak at Kleinhan's Music Hall before members and guests of the region's legal community. That event is sold out.
In her opening remarks at UB, Ginsburg paid tribute to the late local attorney Wayne Wisbaum. The Niagara Falls native and attorney graduated Cornell University one year after Ginsburg. It was he who pushed to bring Ginsburg to UB last year but passed away in late December.
"Wayne was the very best of lawyers," she recalled. "The least self-regarding, the most dedicated to the well-being of the people, organizations, and communities he served."
Wisbaum also led a campaign to raise funds in the 1990s to restore Kleinhans Music Hall.