Campus News

Justice Ginsburg receives SUNY honorary doctorate

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is hooded by President Satish K. Tripathi and Merryl H. Tisch, acting chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees. Photo: Douglas Levere

Photos: Douglas Levere and Nancy J. Parisi

By MICHAEL ANDREI

Published August 27, 2019

“Law affects real people. It exists to govern and serve society, so judges need an appreciation of how the law keeps society operating peacefully.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice
U.S. Supreme Court

Dubbed “an opera-loving rock star” by Acting SUNY Board of Trustees Chair Merryl H. Tisch, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received a warm welcome Monday from an enthusiastic audience as she received a SUNY honorary degree in the Mainstage theatre in the Center for the Arts.

“Justice Ginsburg, you honor us with your presence,” Tisch went on to say. “You lead by example of what it means to truly make America great.”

“On this first day (of the academic year), I know I speak for the entire university community when I say how honored we are to welcome a Supreme Court justice to our campus,” said President Satish K. Tripathi.

“Justice Ginsburg’s presence on campus not only amplifies the excitement surrounding the first day of classes,” Tripathi added. “It also makes today historic, marking the first campus visit by a justice of the Supreme Court and the first time a Supreme Court justice has received a SUNY honorary degree.”

The campus began buzzing about Justice Ginsburg’s visit when it was first announced in May. Tickets to Monday’s honorary degree ceremony were snapped up almost immediately after an email went out to the wider UB community announcing their availability.

Justice Ginsburg’s visit was hosted by the School of Law and the UB Law Alumni Association, the Bar Association of Erie County, the Western New York Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York and the Minority Bar Association of Western New York.

Her visit to UB was covered by prominent news media worldwide, including CNN, TIME, CBS Evening News, Associated Press, USA Today and The Washington Post.

In remarks delivered prior to presenting the honorary degree, SUNY Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson cited Justice Ginsburg’s lifelong advocacy for gender equality and women’s rights, and her moral courage in pursuit of social justice.

“Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority in the landmark 7-1 Supreme Court decision striking down the longstanding male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute, found the policy to violate the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law,” said Johnson.

“Then, Phyllis Schlafly, who advocated a more traditional role for women, criticized the VMI decision, singling out Justice Ginsburg’s ‘activist determination to write her radical feminist goals into the Constitution.’

“I, for one, would like to thank Justice Ginsburg for those radical feminist goals,” Johnson said.

Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson presents Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the honorary degree. Photo: Douglas Levere

As she presented Justice Ginsburg with the honorary degree, Johnson said, “It is with honor and pride that we welcome you as the newest member of the SUNY family, and present you with this Honorary Doctor of Laws.

“This is the highest academic recognition awarded by the State University of New York.”

In her remarks after receiving the degree, Justice Ginsburg said she was honored to be now associated with the University at Buffalo and its law school.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the first U.S. Supreme Court justice to visit UB. Photo: Douglas Levere

She said the event brought her joy, because her visit was first brought up to her by a friend from her college years at Cornell, Wayne Wisbaum, an attorney and prominent member of the Buffalo legal community.

"In July 2018, Wayne wrote to me that his health disabled him from playing a lead role in the arrangements for my visit here but he still hoped to attend all the events. He asked me to confirm that I would come to Buffalo in August 2019 in any event. I did so immediately and I did not withdraw when my own health problems presented challenges," Justice Ginsburg said.

The event also brought her sorrow because Wayne passed away last December and did not live to see this moment, she said.  

Justice Ginsburg told the audience that she was now 86 years old, “yet people of all ages want to take their picture with me.”

If she is notorious, Gisnburg continued, "it is because I had the good fortune to be alive and a lawyer" in the ’60s and '70s. That is when "it became possible to urge before courts, successfully, that equal justice under law required all arms of government to regard women as persons equal in stature to men."

“It was exhilarating to help bring down the barriers to making it more appropriate to place women on a pedestal, as opposed to a cage,” said Justice Ginsburg.

Law school Dean Aviva Abramovsky (left) leads the Q&A with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

In a second portion of the event, Justice Ginsburg took part in a Q&A with School of Law Dean Aviva Abramovsky.

In her first question to Justice Ginsburg, Abramovsky asked, “As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, who were the women who inspired you?”

“I had two inspirers,” Justice Ginsburg responded. “One was Amelia Earhart. She was bold and a trailblazer. She was doing things women weren’t supposed to do.

“And Nancy Drew. Growing up, like a lot of other girls I loved the books. Nancy was a girl and she solved mysteries.

“Also, there was a very brave woman, Belva Lockwood, who was the first woman admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court.”

Lockwood drafted a bill for equal pay for equal work by women in government employment, and the bill was enacted into law in 1872, said Justice Ginsburg.

“Then, after being denied admission to the Supreme Court in 1876, she singlehandedly lobbied Congress, and in 1879, Congress passed a law stating that women who possessed the qualifications must be allowed to practice before the Supreme Court.

“And in March 1879, Belva became the first woman to do so. She was a really inspirational person for me.”

Responding to a question from Abramovsky concerning the Virginia Military Institute decision, Justice Ginsburg said she was invited to speak at VMI 21 years after the 1996 decision.

“The commander was exuberant about the female cadets. It was because with the admission of women, VMI was able to substantially raise the quality of their applicants,” Justice Ginsburg said.

She also told the audience about that single dissenting vote on the court’s United States v. Virginia decision.

“It was written by my good friend, Antonin Scalia. He gave his draft to me before the decision was handed down and said he wanted me to read it. So I said I would, and took it with me on a trip over the weekend. It promptly ruined the weekend.

“But his prophecy that admitting female cadets would mark the end of VMI turned out, of course, to be completely wrong,” Justice Ginsburg said.

In closing, when asked what characteristic all successful judges share, Justice Ginsburg responded: “Patience. And a willingness to listen.

“Compassion is another important quality. Law affects real people. It exists to govern and serve society, so judges need an appreciation of how the law keeps society operating peacefully.

“Judges should be cognizant of how essential this function of the law is.”

READER COMMENTS

Justice Ginsburg is a judicial rockstar. Her advice for personality traits of future Supreme Court justices: “be patient, be a good listener and be compassionate!”

Philip L. Glick