Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits campus to celebrate Louis Brandeis

Ginsburg reflected on Brandeis' legacy on 100th anniversary of his nomination to the Supreme Court

Photo/Mike Lovett
Watch a recap of Ginsburg's visit.

On Thursday, Jan. 28 — a hundred years to the day that Brandeis University’s namesake Louis D. Brandeis was nominated to the nation’s highest court — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to more than 2,500 gathered at Brandeis about his legacy and continued influence on public discourse and American jurisprudence.  

Her address, held at the university's Gosman Sports and Convocation Center, kicked off a semester-long centennial celebration of Louis D. Brandeis' appointment to the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg, who has served on the Supreme Court since 1993, praised Brandeis for his commitment to civil rights and liberties, his willingness to change with the times, and his fact-based approach to writing legal briefs, which Ginsburg said she emulates. (Watch full video of her remarks.)

"I can think of no greater tribute to all that Justice Brandeis — and this, his namesake university — stand for than to inaugurate our celebration with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg," said Interim President Lisa Lynch in her introduction of Ginsburg.

Lynch pointed out some of the similarities between Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, and Ginsburg, the first female Jewish justice: Both have relied on fact-based jurisprudence to advance social change, and both have used their opinions and dissents to educate the public about the social conditions that affect people’s lives.

But there are also differences between the two, Lynch noted. Ginsburg had to overcome gender-based discrimination to practice law, starting in law school and continuing in the law firms where she sought employment. Yet Ginsburg did not allow this adversity to block her path, which ultimately led to the Supreme Court.

"She is a force of nature," Lynch said. "Underestimate her at your peril."

Before Ginsburg addressed the Gosman audience — which included Frank Gilbert, Brandeis' grandson — she met with a small group of Brandeis students. During this talk, she reflected on her experiences coming up in the field of law, and compared them to what women now face.

"The world has changed enormously. ... Opportunities are excellent, but there are still challenges," she said. "One of the challenges is not to react in anger if you think you're being put down because you are a woman."

She offered a piece of advice drawn from her relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she is known to have a chummy rapport, despite their typically having considerably different interpretations of the law.

"If Justice Scalia says something or writes something I think is a bit over the top, unfair to a colleague, I tune out as if it wasn't there," she said. "Never react in anger. Tune it out if you don't want to hear it."

In her remarks at the centennial celebration in Gosman, Ginsburg spoke about the famed "Brandeis brief," a legal-writing technique Brandeis pioneered as an attorney, in which he cited science- and social science-based data at length in his briefs.

Ginsburg said the method is one she admires and has emulated. But, she said, when you look back at the original Brandeis brief, written for the Supreme Court case Muller v. Oregon, much of the scientific information it presented wouldn't hold up today.

The Muller case questioned whether the state of Oregon could impose a 10-hour-per-day work limit on women’s employment. Brandeis' brief argued in favor of the limit. Yet the social and scientific observations it cited were based in reinforcing the notion of women as caretakers and as physically inferior to men.

"Would Brandeis' technique work when social and economic data are inconsistent, and used to challenge sex-based classifications in the law?" Ginsburg asked.

She also weighed in on how she thought Brandeis would view some of the court's more recent landmark decisions. Ginsburg said she had "no doubt" Brandeis would have agreed with the court’s decision to uphold key pieces of the Affordable Care Act, and that he "would have deplored" the Citizens United ruling, which prohibited the government from restricting political-campaign spending by organizations, including for-profit corporations.

Ginsburg’s address was followed by a panel discussion titled "Louis D. Brandeis, the Supreme Court and American Democracy," which included Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; Philippa Strum '59, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Jeffrey Toobin, legal-affairs reporter at The New Yorker; and U.S. District Court Judge Mark L. Wolf. The discussion, moderated by former Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence, focused on Brandeis' legacy, and the ways in which his ideas still resonate today.

Gants said Brandeis reshaped what being a lawyer with a social conscience means, and focused public attention on the pitfalls of a concentration of wealth.

"He recognized that if the excesses of wealth were not restrained and regulated by law, then capitalism itself would be destroyed by populist anger," Gants said. "Sound familiar?"

Strum reflected on Brandeis’ belief in active citizen participation and the people’s role in determining public policy. In order to do that, citizens have to be able to educate themselves by reading, talking to others and listening, Strum said.

"To him, the most important thing about the right to speech was not actually the right to speak, but the right to hear," she said.

Wolf pointed to Brandeis' fierce dedication to combating corruption and his willingness to work with people from any background.

"I've long admired Brandeis for his capacity for growth," Wolf said. "It came from interacting with a wide range of people."

Brandeis' life, which spanned the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War II, occurred during a period of tremendous change. Toobin believes those changes had a significant impact on Brandeis’ growth.

"I think Justice Brandeis' career, as both a lawyer and as judge, is the story of his response to the Industrial Revolution," Toobin said. "I think he was at his best when he was looking forward to the world it was becoming."

The next installment of "Louis D. Brandeis 100: Then and Now," the centennial celebration of Brandeis’ nomination and appointment to the Supreme Court, will be a panel discussion, “Louis Brandeis and the Transformation of American Zionism,” to be held Tuesday, March 1.

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