She walked onstage to the sounds of The Notorious B.I.G.’s eponymous song blasting from the speakers. Hardly the introduction you’d expect for a Supreme Court justice—unless, of course, it’s Associate Justice-slash-pop-culture-icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
At a recent appearance at Columbia University’s “She Opened the Door” women’s conference, Ginsburg’s entrance to a rap soundtrack was accompanied by a standing ovation. I was sitting all the way in the back of the large room, peering over hundreds of heads (and nearly as many smartphone cameras as attendees clamored to capture the moment), at the 84-year-old legend.
Ginsburg may identify as a “flaming feminist litigator,” as CNN anchor Poppy Harlow reminded the audience in her introduction. She may have gained unprecedented status for a judge as a pop star for the liberal crowd, exemplified by the nickname “The Notorious RBG” (hence the song). And she may have gotten into hot water in the past when, to some observers, she got too political.
But her final point in the conversation with Harlow can serve as a reminder to all of us that no matter how much your views differ or how vehemently you disagree with your co-workers—no matter how important the issues and how high the stakes—you can still be friendly and maintain a harmonious work environment.
“I love the work I do. I think I have the best job in the world for a lawyer. I respect all my colleagues and genuinely like most of them,” Ginsburg said, speaking about her work at the end of a response about the things she has loved most in her life, a list that included her luck, her “dear spouse,” her family and children, and beautiful music.
She paused just enough before “most of them” to elicit a big laugh from the audience. But even the hint that she wouldn’t necessarily choose every fellow justice to be her best friend didn’t deter her from pressing on with an important pearl of wisdom any employee could learn from.
I’ve never worked in a more collegial place than the Supreme Court. Let me give you two examples. We have a tradition started by Chief Justice Melville Fuller at the end of the 19th century, and it’s the handshake before we sit to hear oral arguments and before we confer. We go around our conference room, each justice shaking hands with every other. It’s as if to say, ‘Maybe I was miffed yesterday when you circulated that nasty dissent, but we are in this together.’
Ginsburg went on to explain that the justices also lunch together every day they sit to hear arguments and every day they confer, that the chief justice usually brings in wine for a toast when it’s a justice’s birthday, how it’s the former junior justice’s job to make a dinner in honor of a new justice coming on board, and how the group frequently travels together both domestically and abroad.
“So there’s a lot of togetherness,” she said.
Think about it: These are the nine members of the highest court in the country. They deliberate over and make decisions in some of the most important cases, sometimes altering the course of history (think of their 2015 vote making same-sex marriage a right nationwide). And they have staggeringly different views on how the Constitution should be interpreted and, in some instances, which way the court should rule.
But even friendship is possible, as Ginsburg’s close one with the late and quite conservative Justice Antonin Scalia demonstrates. In the compilation of Ginsburg’s writings My Own Words, her biographers Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams quote a 2007 interview in which she speaks fondly of Scalia.
“We are two people who are quite different in their core beliefs, but who respect each other’s character and ability,” Ginsburg said. “There is nobody else I spend every New Year’s Eve with.”
If Supreme Court justices can be friends—or at least friendly—with the colleagues they disagree with, surely we all can too.
Photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Poppy Harlow at Columbia University's "She Opened the Door" conference courtesy of Diane Bondareff/Columbia Alumni Association.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author