Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A True Teacher, Committed to the Next Generation

New York 2009 delegates Charlotte Saul and Erica Pincus visit with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before she spoke to delegates.

The United States Senate Youth Program (USSYP) delegates have been profoundly fortunate to have received personal knowledge, wisdom and encouragement from the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg over many years.  Justice Ginsburg readily answered the call to serve as keynote speaker whenever asked, a request rotated among the Justices during the program’s annual visit to the Supreme Court. A stalwart champion of the program, Justice Ginsburg gave generously of her time with the students in 1995, 2009 and 2016.  Her event in 2009 came only two weeks after she had been hospitalized for cancer surgery. She never wavered in her commitment to speak that year and did so with vigor and humor.  During each long and lively Q and A session, she  provided in-depth answers about American jurisprudence and case law, as well as very personal reflections on the need for equal protection under law from her own experience as a brilliant and accoladed woman who found it impossible to be hired as a lawyer at the start of her career. No question was too arcane, off-topic or mundane for the Justice to tackle, including revealing her favorite ice cream flavor (pistachio) or discussing her love of opera.  Her delight in spending time with the students was again evident in 2012 when she joined the group for the program’s 50th anniversary celebration dinner at the National Gallery of Art.  All in attendance will never forget the image of the diminutive, groundbreaking icon of the law and public service mingling and dining with America’s future leaders.

To honor the memory of Justice Ginsberg, we share a sample of the delegates’ Washington Week reflection essays from 2009, 2012 and 2016.

Of the many tours, presentations and speakers we experienced during the week, listening to Justice Ginsburg speak impacted me in a way I hadn’t expected. I understood how influential she has been to the American court system and civil rights in our country, but what the media could not capture was her tremendous wit. I was fortunate to sit in the front row while she spoke, and I was absorbed by her story the entire time. Listening as she described her struggles as a woman in college, law school, and in her early career struck me because she lived through a time of such inequality that I can hardly imagine as a young woman growing up today. I realized that not only did she live through this time, but she was also one of the most influential people working toward remedying such inequality, and she was standing in that room, talking to us. Having read her dissents, I was surprised by how soft spoken she was, and the unexpected way she managed to interject witty comments into a dialogue about court cases that defined our nation. I wish everyone my age could have the opportunity to hear her speak because listening to her gave me a new appreciation for my rights and a deepened respect for those who fight to ensure them.   Kiera O’Brien, AK – 2016

When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke to us, she said that justices at the end of each day, regardless of their differing beliefs and opinions, would shake hands with one another. “We recognize that we’re serving an institution ever so more important than individuals.”  She also spoke of her time as a law student, when law was not yet accepted as a field for women, reflecting on her and her female colleagues’ reaction to the inequality and prejudice they faced: “It’s strange that we never complained,” she said. That really struck me as fascinating. They never complained. I thought to myself, who else isn’t complaining?   Durga Rathi, CT – 2016   

Washington Week was transformative, and The Hearst Foundations have changed my life. I am forever indebted to them for the scholarship, incredible trip, and having the opportunity to meet with my hero, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her words about her journey to the Supreme Court, the challenges of sexism that she faced, and the legacy of the Court were incredible, as it is my dream to someday sit on the Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is one that has inspired me to dream big and go after any challenge, and the chance to sit in the same room as her and hear her speak was an outstanding opportunity that I am extremely grateful for.   Laura Wagner, DE – 2016


Delegates leave the Supreme Court in 2016 after hearing from Justice Ginsburg

The speaker I most enjoyed was Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  She depicts tenacity and she has much audacity. Justice Ginsburg conveyed encyclopedic knowledge of the law, the United States Constitution, and much more.  Truly, her knowledge was insightful and her wisdom was profound.  Through her words, she allowed each one of us to realize that through whatever circumstances one may experience in life, an individual can overcome and in return make great contributions to the nation and the world.  Warché Downing, NC – 2009

Leaders who lead are truly servers who serve.  This timeless principle was echoed by each individual who made time to address me personally.  A passionate sense of pride developed as I witnessed firsthand how America works.  Taking part in all aspects of my government will always be a cherished moment in my life.  It is easily understood why peoples and nations worldwide envy the American system.  Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg said that all courts and judges covet the Supreme Court.  Why?  When a decision is made, it is accepted, and the nation proceeds forward.  The court, along with the other branches of government, has a special tradition of reason and a sacred trust to serve the Constitution of the United States.  Brendan Marasco, PA – 2009


Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 2016, with New York delegates Liana Van Nostrand and Benjamin Sorkin. She holds in her hands her speaking remarks and her pocket copy of the Constitution

President Obama’s struggles as a community organizer in Chicago and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s difficulty finding a job out of law school just because she was a woman struck home with me and emphasized the continuing need for progress and people to push our country forward.  Before the trip, I had considered politics as a future career, but the relentless barrage of negative media fueled my ever-growing cynicism.  My trip to Washington, D.C. showed me that there were actual people struggling to overcome the negativity surrounding Washington and that I wanted to join them.  Steven Higgins, AL – 2016

The speakers catalyzed in me a desire to do, to serve, to change. By listening to President Obama, multiple senators, Justice Ginsburg and many more paragons of leadership speak to us, I’ve recognized shared characteristics between them that are emblematic of leadership: overflowing passion, a dogged pursuit of justice, and an entrenched belief that through enough hard work positive change is always possible. These lessons were wellsprings of wisdom that I will continue to draw from in my own future pursuits to help create a more just world.  Jackson Wilkins, MS – 2016


Justice Ginsburg on USSYP Washington Week yearbook page from 1995

The most astonishing speaker in my eyes was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her fragile and frail appearance masked her perseverance, strength, and subtle humor. Her humility also shocked me. She has come so far, but she didn’t talk about herself, instead she talked of a Supreme Court case and how it relates to our lives today. Justice Ginsburg said that equal rights has continuously been our greatest struggle and our greatest challenge. In the past with cases such as Loving v. Virginia which focused on race, to the present where cases are focused on Gay and Lesbian rights, Justice Ginsburg truly isolated our nation’s long-lasting fight. Lastly, I admired Justice Ginsburg’s humor even in a serious situation. Her lighthearted answer to questions such as, “If you could be any type of ice cream, what would you be?” created a less pretentious and more accepting and “normal” air around her, and I will never think of pistachio ice cream the same again.  Merijke Coenraad, AK – 2009

After all that she has been through, illness, tragedy, and success in advancing herself into the Supreme Court position, for Ruth Bader Ginsburg to take that much time out of her demanding day was very special to me.  She is a wonderful woman who has achieved so much, and for her to remember the youth and how important we are to the future of our country is very humbling.  Braeden Hogie, MN – 2009

The very presence of Justice Ginsburg gave me goosebumps. Her love for the judicial system and patriotism towards her country were palpable two minutes into her speech. Although recovering from surgery, she managed to stand and take our questions for close to an hour. I was honored by her presence and found her words to be both enlightening and inspiring.  Charlotte Saul, NY – 2009


New York delegates Paarth Shah and Jamie Rosen with Justice Ginsburg at the USSYP 50th Anniversary Dinner in 2012, National Gallery of Art

At the [USSYP 50th Anniversary dinner] I was invited to sit next to none other than esteemed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Who would have thought? We quickly developed a rapport. We discussed politics, her life, my family, my future plans, and of all things, sports. For literally an hour, I was sitting next to one of the most respected women in our country, the second-ever female on the Court. I can’t imagine any other program or other institution in the country that would have offered me that same opportunity. Her biggest piece of advice to me was to “Dream big, dream to change the world because you really can, Paarth.”  Paarth Shah, NY – 2012

Every speaker had worthwhile insight to offer us, but there was a single individual who imparted wisdom with her actions, rather than her words. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was by no means the loudest speaker we heard from, but she clearly communicated to me the value of humility. Despite her impressive power within the United States government, Justice Ginsburg was soft-spoken and considered each word carefully. I was incredibly impressed by her quiet and thoughtful demeanor. I now strive to emulate her humility in my life, and I hope and pray that I will one day be half as successful.  Claire Barnett, TN – 2016

The first similarity among the speakers that I noticed was also the most basic: politicians were actual people. Like everyone else, I had succumbed to the easy fallacy of believing political leaders to be made of marble. Reading their speeches that were carefully combed for any sort of innuendos or hidden slights gave me the impression that they were simply voice boxes for a certain set of ideas like characters in a medieval morality play. However, in hearing them speak, in watching their reactions as delegates asked them questions, I saw their authentic selves. Listening to Justice Ginsburg explain her love for opera and her desire to see the complete Ring cycle, for example, introduced me to a side of her that is outside the scope of a fiery dissent or line of questioning.  Sean Lynch, NE – 2016

I had the opportunity to be in the presence of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That in of itself is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Meredith McCain, GA – 2016



Photos at the Supreme Court by Emma Berver, taken 9/19/2020

All other photos:

© Photos by Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin