Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice, United States Supreme Court
What brought me to this capital city was President Jimmy Carter, who decided he was going to change the face of the U.S. Judiciary. Quite literally, because when he became president, there was only one woman on a federal appellate bench in the entire nation . . . He was determined to change that. By the time he left office, and he had only one term, he had appointed eleven women to Courts of Appeals, and over twenty-five to federal trial courts. He set a pattern that no president abandoned.
We did not have a kosher home, but my mother lit candles every Friday night. My paternal grandparents were alive in my growing-up years. The entire family on my father’s side gathered for seders and at Hanukkah, when the children collected Hanukkah gelt. I went to religious school. . . I was confirmed, but not bat mitzvahed because that ceremony did not exist at the time.
I would say my Jewishness…my heritage as a Jew, coming from the People of the Book, and from my parents, was to love learning. The other main theme is captured by the statement from Deuteronomy: Tzedek, Tzedek, Tirdof (‘Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue’) … I have portrayals of that message in lithographs, in glass sculpture, the words are all over my chambers. The notion, ‘Justice, Justice, Thou Shalt Pursue,’…well, that is my work…to pursue justice. We have laws and many of them require interpretation because Congress is not always as clear as one might hope it…would be. A jurist has principles that guide her in interpreting text. One of them is that the law is designed to govern, should be designed to govern, a just and humane society.
When I was a new judge on the Court, the Court’s wonderful clerk came to me and said, “Every year, we get requests from Orthodox Jews to amend the certificate of membership in the Court’s Bar, because that certificate reads, just as every executive decree does, ‘In the year of our Lord so and so….’” I thought that was an entirely reasonable request. But tradition plays a large part in the way courts work. The first thing I did, I checked what the other federal courts were doing. I was embarrassed to discover that the bar membership certificates for the court on which I served for thirteen years, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, also read, ‘In the year of our Lord.’ Chief judges from the Court of Appeals readily agreed to change that practice. That was an easy endeavor, I barely had to ask and the change was made.
But here (at the Supreme Court) it was harder, because this place is very tradition-bound. I was told by a colleague, “Why are you making a fuss about this? It was good enough for Brandeis, it was good enough for Cardozo and Frankfurter.” I said, “Stop. It’s not good enough for Ginsburg.” The certificate, years ago altered, now gives people an option.
May 27, 2005