Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared stories about their long-time friendship Thursday night at GW’s Lisner Auditorium.
Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, moderated the conversation, which was hosted by the Smithsonian Associates. About 1,500 people attended the lecture. The event honored the 50th anniversary of the Smithsonian Associates program, but also celebrated an over three-decade-long friendship between two justices with opposite points of view.
“Why don’t you just call us the odd couple?” Scalia said.
Ginsburg, a liberal, sees the Constitution as a “living document,” while Scalia, a conservative, prefers to stick to the words of the Constitution.
Ginsburg said that “We the People,” the first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution, apply to far more people than the “white, property-owning men” who signed the Constitution in 1787.
The conversation lasted for about an hour-and-a-half. Some audience members applauded for Scalia’s points, while others clapped for Ginsburg’s arguments. But Totenberg interrupted about half-way through the lecture, telling the audience that she did not want to make the event about politics.
“It’s almost like a State of the Union Address, isn’t it?” Scalia said.
Scalia said that he has not attended a State of the Union (SOTU) since Ronald Reagan was president. Ginsburg tcommented on how she fell asleep during President Barack Obama’s SOTU Jan. 20.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sober,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg said that one of her grandchildren called her after the SOTU, and said, “‘Bubbe, you were sleeping at the State of the Union.’”
Although Ginsburg says she always falls asleep at the SOTU, she agreed with Scalia that the two justices would only retire when they can no longer do their job with the best of their abilities.
“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will,” Ginsburg said.
Scalia and Ginsburg reminisced about the time they rode an elephant in India in 1994.
“That was a rather bumpy ride,” Ginsburg said.
Totenberg and Ginsburg also recited lines from a comic opera by composer Derrick Wang, titled “Ginsburg/Scalia,” which will premiere July 11 at the Castleton Festival in Virginia.
Despite light-hearted comments about opera and family, the justices talked about individual rights. Scalia said that he decides cases certain ways because some decisions should be left to the states.
“Don’t paint me as anti-gay or anti-abortion,” Scalia said. “It doesn’t pertain to the substance. The issue is: who decides? That’s all. By SCOTUS or by the people?”
Ginsburg said gay rights, especially, has come to the forefront of issues because people have changed the way in which they live.
“People who once hid who they were have announced who they are,” Ginsburg said. “They’re not strangers, they’re among us.”
This is not the first time that Supreme Court justices have visited GW’s campus. Ginsburg lectured in Lisner Auditorium Sept. 12, 2014 for Constitution Day and Scalia spoke at the same event in 2013. Justice Sonia Sotomayor served as a judge for GW Law’s 2014 Van Vleck Constitutional Law Moot Court Competition in January 2014.
Totenberg ended the conversation with questions about Scalia’s interest in hunting and Ginsburg’s experience as a baton twirler.
“He started with birds and graduated with Bambi,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg even knocked a tooth out with her baton many years ago, but kept on twirling.
“She was always an overachiever,” Scalia said jokingly.