Trying to get across the river into North Little Rock from downtown during rush hour is a chore. And when a Supreme Court justice is speaking at Verizon Arena? As they say where the Honorable, and honorable, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born: Fuhgetaboutit.
We knew there was a parking lot for press somewhere around soon-to-be-renamed Verizon Arena, but with all the traffic at 5:30 p.m., we stumbled into the only lot we could find after battling all the other vehicles. What was this? A KISS concert?
Before the event officially got going, an Arkansas Times editor sitting next to us on Media Row pointed out two young girls in the crowd who came dressed in their own judicial robes. And you'd better believe the entire media platform erupted into Awwwssss. Those were some cute kids. They have a pretty good role model, too.
The arena was packed, and it was immediately clear why the Kumpuris Lecture series had to be moved here. The stadium filled with cheers when three huge blue letters flashed on the screen RBG. A video of the justice being sworn in played on the jumbotron above. It feels like 1993 was so long ago.
Bill Clinton was in town Tuesday, and began the event. He recalled interviewing RBG for the open SCOTUS seat in the early 1990s. The former president noted her sense of humor, rigorous judicial record and a sense of toughness. The interview, he said, took place back in a time when "we thought of people as people." Before our current period of hyper-partisan division. One could long for such days.
Bill Clinton reportedly fell for the Brooklyn-born judge in a matter of minutes. The former president described himself as "just a guy talking to somebody I really liked." He then noted that Her Honor Justice Ginsburg went on to "far exceed" his expectations.
But one Mr. Clinton said he didn't foresee: Her ascendance as a pop culture icon.
The kids really seem to love RBG. They make movies about her and wear T-shirts with her name on them. Sometimes, it's fun to be an American.
After Bill Clinton left the stage, the associate-justice-in-honor walked on to thundering applause and chants of "RBG!" She waved and motioned for people to have a seat. She was to be interviewed by NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
When RBG was first called about speaking to the president about a Supreme Court nomination, she supposedly remarked that she was out of town for a wedding and asked to move it a day. When she was told that would be fine but she would need to come straight from the airport to meet with President Clinton, RBG warned she'd be in her "travel clothes."
Not to worry, she was told, the president would be coming off the golf course. RBG said she later got the call that he would nominate her late on a Sunday night.
"[It was] one of the happiest moments of my life," she said.
Prior to that, RBG had spent 17 years teaching law and 13 years on the court of appeals. She would go on to be the second woman on the nation's highest court, after Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But things hadn't changed enough.
RBG told the crowd how Justice O'Connor had to return to her quarters to use the restroom. There were fewer facilities for women in the robing room because up until 1981 all the justices had been men. But when RBG came along, crews made quick renovations and installed a women's bathroom of equal size to the men's room at a closer reach. That note got some cheers.
When lawyers presenting arguments before the court would confuse Justice Ginsburg and Justice O'Connor for each other (despite the fact they look nothing alike), the first woman on the Supreme Court would speak up and let them know she was Sandra Day O'Connor. And that's Ruth Bader Ginsburg over there. Talk about setting the record straight.
Eventually, the National Association of Women Judges got RBG a "I'm Ruth, not Sandra," shirt. What a gift!
The topic of RBG's health came up, as it inevitably would. Nina Totenberg asked the justice why she was in Little Rock so soon after radiation treatment. The justice simply responded that she'd promised the Clinton School of Public Service she would be here.
"I'm pleased to say, I'm feeling very good today," she said.
The justice credited her work with saving her. RBG said if she has an opinion to write or a brief to read, she knows she has to get over whatever she's feeling and complete the work. We hope to be half that dedicated and strong at age 86.
You may recall, Gentle Reader, that Justice Ginsburg's husband, Martin Ginsburg, died in 2010 from cancer. RBG's entire life has been a fight with the dreaded disease.
The justice spoke on her belief in the Constitution as a living document and the need to ask "Who are We The People?" When the document was written in 1787, We The People did not include slaves, women or people who lacked property. Now, she noted, the concept of "We The People" has become much more inclusive.
"We are certainly a more perfect union as a result," she said.
Our favorite story RBG told was of her own "lively" son. He went to a school that had a hand crank elevator, and one day a classmate dared him to take the class up in it. He did, and when the doors opened, the class faced their teacher, their principal, and the school psychiatrist. Busted.
The school called RBG in her office (she was working as a law professor at the time), and she simply responded, "This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It's his father's turn."
As if a man's work is too important to be interrupted.
When they did call Martin Ginsburg, he was told by school officials, "Your son stole an elevator." He asked, "How far did he take it?"
Nina Totenberg asked the justice about her famous friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Their families had spent New Year's together, and both shared a love for opera. They traveled together. And it mystified people how such a conservative bastion held the most liberal justice so dearly in his heart and vice versa. We could all learn a lesson from them both.
RBG said an opera has been written about their friendship. It's called Scalia/Ginsburg. Fittingly, the two characters engage in a duet called, "We are different, we are one." A lesson for everyone to learn from indeed.
Nina Totenberg closed the event by calling RBG "the notorious one." There was another standing ovation, and we made our way out into the humid night where we would wait 30 minutes in the car to leave the parking lot.
It was an honor to hear the justice speak, even for those of us more along the lines of the Scalia crowd. To hear a SCOTUS judge give a speech or interview in person is an honor, no matter what side of the political fence you fall on. Remember, there are only nine of them at a time. And some, as we noted this week, are more affable than others.
Editorial on 09/06/2019
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