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U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Saturday called anti-immigrant sentiment “disheartening” and said she’d probably get rid of the electoral college.
Dozens braved torrential rain to hear Ginsburg speak to high school students at Mililani High School in Central Oahu for about an hour.
People were instructed not to ask about cases that might go before the high court, including a challenge to President Donald Trump’s ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.
But one student asked Ginsburg about whether she thinks immigrants benefit the country. The justice said the inscription at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty welcoming immigrants “inspires me to this day.”
“I think of the U.S. as a place that welcomes people from abroad who want to work and who are yearning to be free,” she said. “It’s disheartening to see that there are some people who don’t agree with that view who think our borders should be closed. But it’s not the first time in U.S. history that has happened.”
She said that she’s optimistic that the country will get back to its reputation “as a land of freedom and democracy that embraces people who come to us as strangers and then become part of us.”
Ginsberg, 83, is in Hawaii this week to take part in the U.S. Supreme Court Jurists-in-Residence program run by the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii. It’s her third time to participate in the program, which she also joined in 2004 and 1998.
Ginsburg was appointed by former President Bill Clinton and at the time was only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Two decades later, she is the most senior liberal justice on the court and is heralded as a feminist icon. Before joining the Supreme Court, she served as a federal appeals court judge, law professor and general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
On Saturday, Ginsburg was soft-spoken and funny, engaging the audience with questions and making jokes about her age (“In ancient days when I went to high school…”).
The justice declined to take questions from news media and only answered questions that came from high school students. No one asked about Trump or his Supreme Court nominee. Ginsburg had criticized the president while he was campaigning, calling him a “faker,” although she said later that she regretted those remarks.
But Ginsburg did lament the polarization of American politics and discussed what would happen if the president defied a Supreme Court ruling.
“I think that society has approved the role that the Supreme Court has in our constitution,” she said. “Congress and the president, like it or not, understand that they can’t defy the court’s orders because the people wouldn’t stand for it.”
Changing how Congress works is one of three things she said she would reform about the country, along with passing the Equal Rights Amendment to guarantee equality for women and likely getting rid of the electoral college.
“I know how our Congress can work when it has truly bipartisan spirit,” she said. “I hope I live to see the day when our Congress starts working in harmony again and not voting strictly along party lines.”
She also said she would “probably do away with the electoral college,” echoing a similar statement she made at Stanford University earlier this week. “That’s very hard to do because it would require a constitutional amendment,” she said.
Ginsburg started off her talk by asking students what “We the people” meant when the U.S. constitution was first written and explaining that it only referred to white men who owned property.
“The genius of this constitution … is that ‘We the people,’ has become ever more embracive,” she said, adding that the equal protection clause in the Fourteenth Amendment is her favorite provision.
She noted that even when that went into effect in 1868, it wasn’t intended to apply to women. But the amendment planted an idea that could be perfected over time, she said.
The founders “expected us to be constantly endeavoring to form a more perfect union,” she said.
She contrasted her philosophy with that of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, known for his conservative and originalist interpretations of the constitution.
Despite their differences, she said they were good friends in part due to his “infectious sense of humor.”
During federal appeals court proceedings, he’d whisper jokes into her ear and she’d have to pinch herself not to laugh, she said. They both cared about writing and would give each other feedback. They also both cared about families and loved the opera.
“I miss him,” she said. “Conferences are less lively than they once were.”
She also said one of the most important cases in her career was a 2008 decision in which the court decided prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay had the right to habeas corpus — the right to be brought before a judge who reviews whether they should be detained.
Ginsburg has spent the week meeting with federal and state judges along with students and faculty at the University of Hawaii. She was scheduled to go horseback riding Saturday morning but the rain prevented her from doing so.