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Despite it being “Supreme Court Day” at City University of New York School of Law, a visit to Flushing, Queens, by an associate justice of the nation’s high court is not common. So it was that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s recent campus address not only packed the main auditorium at CUNY Law, but filled two overflow lecture halls with closed-circuit coverage. And Ginsburg, a notoriously doting grandmother, was presented with a bouquet of roses by a dozen of the students’ children. Indeed, the visit was something of a love affair. When Ginsburg spoke, softly and precisely, one could hear a pin drop, especially in answer to a student’s question on her view of the proper balance between civil liberties and the need for increased security in a time of terrorism. “We have not been given to security procedures to the extent that other countries have,” said Ginsburg. “And you must remember that [the Supreme Court] is a reactive institution. If the people don’t care about protecting their liberties, there is no court that can [address] that sadness.” But Ginsburg’s time at CUNY Law was not entirely spent in carefully worded opinion. In introducing Ginsburg to her faculty and students, most drawn from the city’s outer boroughs and from working-class backgrounds, CUNY Law Dean Kristin Booth Glen remarked, “There are many similarities between Justice Ginsburg and our community. For one, she was born in Brooklyn. She was a twirler. She went to law school with an infant. She is a person who loves the racetrack at Saratoga. She is an incredible opera fan, known to dress in extremely silly costumes of the period.” Ginsburg began her formal talk — about two women of the past who overcame social barriers of their time to play important roles in the history of the Supreme Court — with a bit of self-deprecation. “If I could have any talent that God could give me, I would have been a great diva,” she said. “Being a monotone, I thought [law] would be the next best thing. It’s endlessly challenging, and [associate justice] is a most secure position.” The subjects of Ginsburg’s talk were Malvina Shanklin Harlan, the wife of Justice John M. Harlan (1877-1912), and Burnita Shelton Matthews, the first woman to serve as a federal district judge when she received a recess appointment from President Harry S. Truman in 1949. Harlan played a pivotal role in one of her husband’s most famous opinions, Ginsburg explained. Justice Harlan dissented when the Supreme Court struck down a Reconstruction-era civil rights law of 1875 prohibiting racial discrimination in restaurants and trains. His wife found from among his collection of court memorabilia the inkwell used in 1857 by Chief Justice Roger Taney to write the infamous Dred Scott decision, confirming the right to hold slaves. As Ginsburg recounted in a National Public Radio interview, “When [Justice Harlan] saw that inkwell and recalled the part that it had played in retaining the shackles of slavery [it] made his thoughts just fly and he wrote, and he soon finished his dissenting opinion. Dissents speak to a future age. So that is the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” As a frequent dissenter on today’s Supreme Court bench, and a lawyer who suffered gender-based employment discrimination not so long ago, Ginsburg said she felt a special bond with Matthews (1894-1988), a participant in the suffrage movement of the 1920s who graduated from National University Law School in Washington, D.C., where “on weekends, she picketed the White House,” Ginsburg noted with a smile. No firm in Washington would hire Matthews, who established a solo practice specializing in eminent domain law, said Ginsburg. In fitting irony, Matthews bested government lawyers in the 1920s by negotiating $400,000 — an enormous sum for the time — in the sale of a house owned by the National Woman’s Party, demolished to make way for the site on which the Supreme Court now sits. Ginsburg left her CUNY Law admirers with one further subject lesson in the long view of dissent, the words of Mohandas K. Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

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