U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had much to share about her life and career during a conversation with Amherst President Biddy Martin on Oct. 3. She expressed herself deliberately and thoughtfully—and also surprised the audience with several one-liners and quips. Here are some of these memorable comments, as well as a sampling of reactions from others in attendance.

Justice Ginsburg on:

  • President Bill Clinton informing her that he’d nominate her to the high court: “When he called me I was on cloud nine. It was joy beyond reckoning. ... I had to descend from the cloud and write my remarks [for her White House Rose Garden acceptance speech].”
  • The Supreme Court as a “reactive institution”: “The Court doesn’t make the conflagrations, [it] does its best to put them out.”
  • The composition of the Court when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired: “The public saw eight rather well-fed men on the bench and this small woman.”
  • Her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia: “What endeared me most to him was his wonderful sense of humor. He would sometimes pass me notes that cracked me up.” 
  • Her mother: “What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in the garment district and a Supreme Court justice? One generation.”
  • Marriage advice from her mother-in-law offered to Justice Ginsburg on her wedding day: “Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf.”
  • What it’s like for her to go to the opera: “All the briefs and opinions are put on a high shelf and I just enjoy the glorious music.” 
  • Whether she was taken aback to be called “Notorious RBG” (a nod to late rapper “the Notorious B.I.G.”): “I wasn’t at all surprised. The two of us had something very important in common. That is, we were both born and bred in Brooklyn.”
  • What her career would be if she weren’t in the legal field: “A great diva. Sadly for me, I’m a monotone.”

About Justice Ginsburg:

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Biddy Martin

Amherst President Biddy Martin after Justice Ginsburg’s comment that “the changes I’ve seen in my life make me optimistic and especially for the people in this room”: “The people in this room give me hope too.”

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Andrew Nussbaum

Chair of the College’s Board of Trustees Andrew J. Nussbaum ’85, who served as a law clerk for the justice in the early 1990s, on the day-to-day experience of working for the Justice: “It was four years of Amherst College rolled into one. It was the liberal arts put to the true test.”

Jack Kiryk ’21 on the justice’s description of her career: “One thing she talked about was how she is so engaged with the work she is doing and she loves it so much... . She thinks of it in all of her waking hours, except when she’s listening to opera. I was thinking, wow, having a career where your life revolves around loving that career and being so utterly engaged in it, is the dream, isn’t it?”

Amalia Roy ’21 on the resonance of Justice Ginsburg’s life journey: “She was able to talk about her history in a way that everyone could relate to, in a way that I think many people wouldn’t be expecting. With many of her experiences, anyone can find some part and think, ‘Oh, I can understand that.’”

Ella Peterson ’22 on the event itself: “Getting to hear [Justice Ginsburg] speak is something that I will treasure for the rest of my life. I’m an RC, and I already put a quote [the Justice referenced], ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,’ on our floor’s whiteboard. I know her message resonates with a lot of us here, and I am grateful for the experience.”