Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the Supreme Court, made a rare public speaking appearance at the Jack Morton Auditorium Thursday to discuss the legacy of the recently deceased Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Her words were made strictly from prepared notes about the former chief justice, and she did not mention new Chief Justice John Roberts or President Bush’s failed nomination of Harriet Miers.
Ginsburg’s speech was part of a two-day symposium organized by members of the GW Law Review, a student-run scholarly journal at the Law School. The event was so popular that additional seating was supplied in a separate room of the Law School for people who could not fit in the over-capacity School of Media and Public Affairs building studio.
Ginsburg said Rehnquist saw his job as “the situation of a referee who must call a foul on a member of the home team during a critical moment of a game. It may not be popular, but it must be done.”
She described the late chief justice as “a plain speaker with no airs or affectations,” adding that Rehnquist kept the justices and lawyers “in line and on time” by giving them homework assignments that involved writing opinions of closed cases.
Organizers of the event said they were not surprised the justice did not deviate from her prepared remarks.
“Justices have to be guarded in what they say,” said law student Phil Warrick, editor in chief of the GW Law Review.
When the justice agreed to speak at the symposium in spring 2004, Rehnquist was still alive, though he was suffering from thyroid cancer. Ginsburg agreed to speak and expected Rehnquist to be in attendance to celebrate his 33rd year as a Supreme Court justice and his 20th year as chief justice, Warrick said.
The chief justice’s Sept. 3 death dramatically changed the tone of the conference, which was originally about Rehnquist’s role on the court. After he died, the conference’s theme became his legacy.
Despite his position as the head of the nation’s highest court, Rehnquist remained humble, Ginsburg said. She said Rehnquist once said, “A chief justice has some tools that will allow him to be first among equals, but his stature depends on how he uses them.”
University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and Law School Dean Frederick M. Lawrence introduced Ginsburg at the event. Trachtenberg attended the same New York high school as Ginsburg.
Ginsburg described Rehnquist as a believer in an independent judiciary who favored common sense in his rulings. She said he was one of the best bosses she has ever had and one of the best judges that she has ever seen. Ginsburg, who was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1999, said she admired Rehnquist for working while he was ill.
The organizers of the symposium said Ginsburg’s speech was the most heavily attended event of the two-day conference, and that most other sessions drew 50 to 100 people. Most of the attendees at the other programs were law students and faculty, while the event featuring Ginsburg had a broader mix of faculty, undergraduate students and staff.
Sonia Nath, news and projects editor of the GW Law Review, said the symposium had a higher-than-normal level of interest because of the timely topic and the location. Last year’s conference on “Law and Democracy” was held at the Library of Congress.