Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Love, Law and Sliding Off Planes

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg comes to San Francisco to visit the opera and speak at UC Hastings.

    Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a small woman.

    Thursday the frail 78-year-old almost melted into her leather chair in front of hundreds of lawyers, students and dignitaries at San Francisco's University of California Hastings College of the Law.

    The spotlight was shining brightly on the evening's star. So much so she politely complained about the "nasty" lights.

    "We've been warned fiercely not to move these chairs," UC Hastings Law Professor, and the evening's moderator, Joan Williams told Ginsburg.

    But 30 seconds later, without saying another word, the tiny woman flexed her considerable power. The chairs were moved out of the spotlight. 

    Ginsburg, wearing a cream evening dress with a matching shawl and gloves, was now comfortable enough to share her stories with a captivated audience that eagerly hung on every paused word the eldest member of the Supreme Court had to say.

    Thursday the justice was in San Francisco to speak at UC Hastings's "Legally Speaking" lecture series. She took the stage just shortly after she was involved in a decision to stay an execution in Texas.

    For a little over an hour, the dignified legal mind shared her stories from the bench, the state of the American legal system, the political climate in Washington, some cooking tips and even advice for successful relationships.

    The appearance came just a day after she had to be escorted off of an airplane on inflatables slides after smoke was reported in one of the aircraft's engines.

    Ginsburg's arrival in San Francisco was in doubt to everyone but her.

    "I wanted to thank you so much for coming out here. Not everybody is willing to jump out of a plane onto an inflatable slide," Williams said.

    Ginsburg smiled and coyly responded, "I had not planned that as part of my journey here," before adding that she had really come to attend the San Francisco Opera. She missed the first act of Wednesday's performance but made the second.

    "It was stunning," she said of the performance.

    And the evening continued with Ginsburg sharing her personal passions, insights and pearls of wisdom with the audience.

    The second woman ever to serve on the Supreme Court talks just like your grandmother. Slowly, thoughtfully and deliberately. The only difference is she is more brilliant and it shows.

    Her left-leaning political bias crept out at times, despite her best attempts to stay true to her reputation of not speaking ill of others from the bench.

    Despite her age, Ginsburg's most impressive attribute was her razor sharp memory. There has been some debate in political and legal circles lately about whether Ginsburg or her fellow justice, Stephen Breyer, will be the next to retire from the bench.

    The elderly judge had no problem recalling the most intimate details of cases she ruled on a decade ago or explaining controversial rulings, such as the recent one that gave Wal-Mart a victory in a gender bias class action lawsuit.

    Ginsburg also spoke about the changing political environment in Washington. She said had she been nominated to the court today there is no way she would be confirmed, partly because of her past affiliations.

    Before joining the Supreme Court, Ginsburg worked as a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU, which she said is an organization she still holds near and dear to heart and would never speak ill of.

    She said before President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Court in 1993, he called the Republican leader to make sure he was on the same page.

    "That doesn't happen anymore," she said. "Someday we will get back to the way things were."

    Ginsburg said there used to be a true spirit of bi-partisanism in the nation's capital but that has eroded over the past few years and it has impacted America's standing in the world.

    The spirit has found its way into the Supreme Court as well, according to Ginsburg. She said the justices have cut back their citations to international courts and in turns foreign courts have stopped looking at the U.S. as often as they once did.

    Still Ginsburg said despite reports to the contrary everyone on the Supreme Court gets along well. She said while she dealt with two bouts of cancer, her fellow justices did all they could to accommodate her schedule and to let her choose what decisions she wanted to write.

    She even recently went on a trip to India with Justice Antonin Scalia where she rode an elephant. No emergency exits were required.

    "It was quite a magnificent and a very elegant elephant," she said."And my feminist friends, when they see the photograph of Ginsburg and Scalia on this elephant, say, 'Ruth, why are you sitting in the back?'"

    And while she is aware of her own mortality, there was no talk of retirement for Ginsburg on Thursday night.

    "I would like people to think of me as a person who did the best that she could with the limited talent she had," Ginsburg said.