The 23rd Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture was held virtually on November 18, 2020 as part of the GDS 75th Anniversary Speaker Series. GDS alumni parent and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was originally scheduled to be one of the keynote speakers at this year’s Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture. Following her passing this fall, the lecture was transformed into a panel discussion honoring the late justice’s legacy. Head of School Russell Shaw moderated a conversation with GDS parent and U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson, U.S. Circuit Judge Nina Pillard, GDS alumnus Representative Jamie Raskin ’79, and NPR correspondent (and longtime friend of the late justice) Nina Totenberg. Russell also introduced Justice Ginsburg’s son, Jim Ginsburg ’83, who attended the event.
The event opened with a slideshow featuring photos of a mix of past speakers, the evening’s panelists, and the late justice accompanied by the prologue to Notorious RBG in Song, an operatic album of original music produced by Jim Ginsburg in celebration of his mother’s completion of 25 years on the Supreme Court.
Russell began the conversation by inviting each of the panelists to speak about the enduring impact the late justice had on the country, on society, on law and the courts, and on their life and work personally. Nina Totenberg spoke about RBG’s dual legacies, first as a lawyer and advocate, and later as a Supreme Court justice, where her elegant writing, both in her famous dissents and groundbreaking opinions, left an indelible mark on voting rights and sex discrimination, in particular.
“At the time she began her crusade, there were literally thousands of federal, state, and local laws that discriminated against women,” Totenberg said “...And by the time she had finished, she had made a sea change in American law. Almost all of those laws are now gone….Here was this tiny little person, very shy, who got up on the stage and was such a presence that even in one of the last interviews I did with her—in Little Rock, where we had an audience of 16,000 people in the Verizon Center...and you could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium.”
Judge Pillard spoke to RBG’s resilience and the ways in which Justice Ginsburg’s story paralleled many of the same obstacles that women have traditionally faced in the workplace, from finding work in a law firm, even after graduating at the top of her class, to caring for children*, family health, and her own health battles. None of those obstacles stood a chance of putting her off the path. Judge Jackson spoke personally of RBG’s empowering legacy, as she has followed in several of the pathways blazed by the late justice: when she first argued a case before the Supreme Court, when she became a judge on the same court where Judge Ginsburg once sat, and more.
Representative Raskin spoke of Justice Ginsburg as one of a pair of “legal pioneers” whose careers tirelessly combatted laws that subjected American citizens to discriminatory treatment. “It's remarkable to me,” Raskin said, “as I was reflecting about our panel that there were two great legal pioneers in the 20th century who really transformed the meaning of the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment, as both lawyers and as Supreme Court justices, and both of them were part of the GDS family. Yes, Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
The late Justice Marshall, also a GDS alumni parent, explained Raskin, was “one of the key architects of transforming the jurisprudence under Plessy v. Ferguson which constitutionalized apartheid in America...Marshall was part of the team that dismantled Plessy v. Ferguson and Jim Crow and brought us Brown v. Board and then went on to serve with such great distinction. Ruth Bader Ginsburg did the exact same thing, by analogy, for dismantling, as Nina Totenberg described, hundreds of federal laws and thousands of laws across the country that just took gender discrimination for granted and subordinated women and sometimes men in the process.”
Raskin went on to speak about the legacy of these two giants of justice to “slug it out year after year, decade after decade in the courts,” at times vindicating and elsewhere eviscerating congressional intent.
Finally, and in some ways speaking to the courageous founding and ongoing mission of GDS, Raskin emphasized that the legacy of these two “pioneers” is defined by their departure from status quo in defense of human rights and inclusion. “Why do people love [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] so much?” he asked rhetorically. “Why do people love Thurgood Marshall so much? I think some of it has to do with the real history of the Supreme Court, where Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg were very much the exception. For the vast majority of American history the Supreme Court has been a profoundly reactionary institution.”
Time and again, Raskin explained, on the Warren court, the Burger court, the Rehnquist court, and the Roberts court, “[the Supreme Court has] really returned to its historic baseline.” Ginsburg’s and Marshall’s departure from that institutional arc is “what makes these two people such extraordinary figures.”
The panelists also spoke to the well-loved and curious story of Justice Ginsburg’s friendship with the late Justice Scalia and the lessons for collaborating across clear lines of difference. While the press often covers their mutual love of opera, their teasing of one another, and the contrast their friendship presented to their ideologically opposed opinions on the Court, Totenberg told a less well-known story. Justice Scalia once gave Justice Ginsburg his completed dissent just days before she finished her majority opinion in the Virginia Military Institute case United States v. Virginia. Totenberg recounted, “[Scalia] said, ‘Ruth I thought you ought to see this so you could answer the things I've said when you're writing your opinion.’ She said it absolutely ruined her weekend because she had to suddenly deal with a whole bunch of things she hadn't thought of. And she said it made it a better opinion...I think it's important to have friends who don't agree with you, as long as they don't make your stomach hurt. And as long as it can be civil. If it gets nasty that's no fun. But if it's a difference, [that makes it] interesting, and you learn things that way.”
In closing the moderated panel portion of the evening, Russell quoted Justice Ginsburg from a 2018 naturalization ceremony for 31 recent immigrants to the United States when she spoke about the stains that remain in our aspirations to form a more perfect union. Russell asked the panelists to speak about the work that they are called to do and that GDS students are called to do, inspired by Justice Ginsburg and inspired by our school.
Judge Jackson responded by centering what it is to do meaningful work and what it means to be of service. “How do I find meaning in my work especially in light of a commitment to social justice and the kinds of goals that Justice Ginsburg had? I'll put it this way. My husband is a surgeon, and one of his mantras is, ‘How can I help?’ And he says that several times a day, about a lot of different things, not just medicine, and it's a mindset that I would encourage students to adopt because it's that kind of thinking that will lead you to find work that advances the cause of justice. Those of us who are in public service do what we do because we're interested in helping people. The kinds of work that we engage in typically are about identifying problems and then being fortunate enough to be in a position to seek solutions that help people. My short answer is, ‘Think: Let me do something that is helpful. What can I do to help?’”
Towards the end of the program, Russell invited Jim Ginsburg to say a few words. “I'm really honored,” he said, “and I've really enjoyed this. Thank you so much for having this program. It's great to see friends. I just want to say I was particularly gratified at the comments about her approach to collegiality and the wonderful and inspired stories. I think she would have really enjoyed hearing them. And, just as a sort of shout back—I probably shouldn't name the school I went to in New York—but I will say I was not the best student. And it was really coming to GDS in 10th grade where I actually found out that you could enjoy learning. And it really, really, truly turned me around. So I am forever grateful for that as well.”
The Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture was originally established in memory of Benjamin Cooper by his close friends David Goldberg ’98, Jennifer Miller ’98, Megan Palmer ’97, Jacob Remes ’98, Dan Sharfman ’97, and Jessica Wolland ’97. Ben, a rising senior at Georgetown Day School, was killed in a tragic accident on August 12, 1997. The Lecture Fund, endowed by the Cooper-Areen family, enables GDS to bring a renowned guest lecturer to the school each year to stimulate the kind of dialogue in which Ben loved to participate. Previous Cooper Lecturers have included Ta-Nehisi Coates, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Elie Wiesel, and Maya Angelou.
*RBG famously chided a former headmaster at Dalton, where Jim Ginsburg ’83 wreaked some mild havoc before being “turned around” by GDS, telling him upon receiving another call about Jim’s behavior, “My son has two parents, please alternate calls.”