Locals remember Ginsburg’s 2013 visit to the area
‘A great diva’
During his 13 summer stay in the President’s Cottage at Chautauqua Institution, Tom Becker had the privilege of hosting and entertaining a wide range of esteemed guests of the institution — among them some of the greatest minds in American history.
But Becker couldn’t help but laugh when thinking of one Sunday evening in July of 2013 spent with that Monday’s platform speaker whose lecture would focus on the intersection of opera and the law.
And while Ruth Bader Ginsburg will always be remembered for the serious tenacity with which she approached case law, the institution’s retired president will never forget the range with which she could converse.
“Conversations with her could go from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Becker said of the longtime associate justice of the United States Supreme Court who passed away Friday evening at the age of 87. “She was comfortable in all of that arc of change.”
Ginsburg’s death sent shockwaves across the nation over the weekend despite the associate justice’s recent bout with pancreatic cancer. A champion for equality and women’s rights, Robert H. Jackson Center President Kristan McMahon, who herself holds a law degree from the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, said the news saddened her and called Ginsburg a “personal hero.”
“She’s been a champion for the rights of all populations with a voice on the court that will be sorely missed,” McMahon said of Ginsburg, who had served on the court since 1993. “Seeing both her and Sandra Day O’Connor really helped show what the path could be for a woman pursuing a legal career — and really this was before I thought about law as a possible career for myself. But, for a lot of people, seeing yourself in someone doing something is important in knowing that it could be a path for you, too.”
Her visit to the area, however, provided her an opportunity for some levity.
“She was open and gracious and welcoming and really quite enamored with Chautauqua which filled my heart,” Becker said, fondly remember dinner on the cottage’s porch followed by living room entertainment by members of the Chautauqua Opera Company.
“She sat on the couch and was probably seven, eight feet away from the singers,” he remembered of the noted opera enthusiast. “Her whole demeanor was filled with joy. She had such an appreciation for the art and also the artistry. I know she had a real appreciation for the talent and the discipline at performing at that level. She was very kind to the performers that evening.”
Earlier that afternoon, Ginsburg also paid a visit to the Jackson Center, named in honor of her predecessor on the court and former Jamestown resident. Then-president and chief executive officer, Jim Johnson, spent the afternoon giving the justice a private tour.
“It was an honor to be with her and to have that time, just one-on-one, “Johnson remembered. “I had her complete attention and focus and that was just an honor and she was very engaged, very, very interested, and supportive of our work. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to spend that time with her.”
Though Ginsburg’s time in the area was short, Johnson said they were given ample time for a tour.
“She certainly made the time to be there so that we could have a very, very complete tour of the center and a good discussion about the mission,” he remembered. “We weren’t rushed. There wasn’t someone trying to rush her along. She spent the time and asked questions. It was truly a thrill.”
The next morning, prior to the lecture, Ginsburg told WJTN radio personality, Jim Roselle, about her tour on his daily radio broadcast from Bestor Plaza.
“I thought it was a remarkable tribute to the justice,” she told Roselle about the center. “He would have been proud to see what has been done with his center.”
Her 10:45 a.m. lecture was unique, Becker said.
“She was quite wonderful on the subject on law and opera,” he said, noting that the institution “his just the right note” in trying to attract her to its hallowed grounds to speak.
“We were trying to develop something unique enough to get her attention and she clearly prepared something substantial,” he said. “I loved the fact that she combined her two loves in such a creative and innovative way.”
“The invitation to be with you challenged me to consider the topic anew,” Ginsburg said that July 28 morning. “I find it fair to say that law does have a comparable part in opera.”
“We had arranged to have some members of the young artists of the opera company perform intermittently. … She would refer to a piece in a particular opera that had a moment of exchange with a judge or a lawyer or a ruler or something and the young artists would sing the piece,” Becker remembered.
“It was really quite nice to see a significant figure like a member of the Supreme Court talking about an art form at Chautauqua and having those that we invest in our commitment to opera there with her,” he added. “It was one of those times where I found myself deeply appreciating our putting that together. It was really lovely.”
The road ahead to fill Ginsburg’s vacancy on the court has already proven to be difficult. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Friday that the body will move ahead with the confirmation process of President Donald Trump’s nominee despite Election Day being just 43 days away.
The partisanship that is sure to be ahead reminded Becker of another anecdote from Ginsburg’s visit — her collegiality and friendship with late-Justice Antonin Scalia.
“She talked about the relationship with Scalia and their common love for opera and their friendship, yet the very serious differences that they had with how they approached the law and the lines that they drew with the Constitution,” he said. “That was seven years ago and in this particular age and this particular time facing as divisive of an election as there’s ever been and we’re talking about the Supreme Court and a very partisan approach as to what we do next. It made all of her appreciation about the absence of the ability to really talk across things even more profound.”
In her later years, Ginsburg’s presence as a “social icon” grew her star even more causing her to become perhaps the most recognizable justices in the court’s history. That came as no surprise to Becker.
“She had this wonderful combination of this brilliant, absolutely focused mind and she was kind of quirky,” he said. “You could see where she could easily be a real source of lore and myth for that matter. She did strike something beyond herself just in the way she presented herself. She was something else.”
“In my dreams, I can be a great diva,” Ginsburg told the Amphitheater’s capacity crowd that day which elicited roaring laughter.
And while younger generations will remember her fame as the “Notorious RBG,” legal minds like Johnson and McMahon will remember the trails she blazed for those in marginalized communities — much like the local hero and the namesake of the organization they both have served.
“This was someone who wanted to do what was right in every aspect of her life,” Johnson said. “She wanted to do what was right and that came out in the life she lived and in her decisions in her work on the Supreme Court, in her opinions. She had a strong sense of justice and a strong sense of what was right much like Jackson.”
“Their legal philosophies were shaped by some of their challenges in their careers,” McMahon said. “She appreciated the obstacles that had been put into her path and understood how really that shaped her trajectory. That she had the grit to figure out how to get around and over the obstacles is inspiring.”
She added, “They both brought an interesting perspective into the court and I think that diversity is important. If you have same background, mindset, something will get lost.”