Justice at the opera
The bellowing voice tumbled down from the upper level of the theater, from an older gentleman of considerable girth, slight beard and apparently less-than-optimal hearing. “Madam Justice!” he declared in a High Dickensian boom. “Raise your head to the balcony please!”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, so addressed, stopped speaking for a moment and peered up toward the rafters. The Supreme Court justice, whose audience usually sits below her, had come to the Glimmerglass opera festival, in Cooperstown, N.Y., to give a talk on the two passions of her life — opera and the law.
It was a rainy Friday afternoon, and the 900-seat house was packed with fans of both the material and the speaker. Ginsburg, 80, and remarkably small-boned, perched on a high chair at the front of the stage, a grand piano to her right. She had been answering a young woman’s question about becoming a lawyer when the man called out from above.
Before she could reply, he bellowed again. “Did you hear me?”
The theater fell into an awkward silence. “Yes, I think I heard you,” she responded with the calm of a woman accustomed to being interrupted by declarative men. “You can’t hear me?”
The exchange could stand for much of Ginsburg’s career on the court she joined 20 years ago this month — and particularly for her complicated relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, fellow opera buff and frequent ideological antipode. Where Scalia so often plays the bilious baritone, Ginsburg, who imagines herself a lyric soprano, sings more sweetly, although with no less moral clarity.
In her lengthy dissent from the court’s ruling in June striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she wrote that throwing out part of the law “when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” (There is even a new opera, “Scalia/Ginsburg,” that dramatizes the pair’s battles over constitutional interpretation.)
Among the music Ginsburg discussed at Glimmerglass was “I Accept Their Verdict,” an aria from “Billy Budd,” the 1951 Benjamin Britten opera based on Herman Melville’s novella. Budd, a sailor, is sentenced to death after striking and killing an officer on his ship who had falsely accused him of organizing a mutiny. The aria is sung by Captain Vere, who knows he must uphold the sentence as lawful despite his belief that Budd was in the right:
“... I who am king of this fragment of earth,
Of this floating monarchy, have exacted death.
But I have seen the divine judgment of heaven,
I’ve seen iniquity overthrown. ...
Before what tribunal do I stand if I destroy goodness?”
Ginsburg noted that Melville based the character of Vere on his father-in-law, a Massachusetts judge who had ordered that an escaped slave be returned to his owner. The judge, Ginsburg said, opposed slavery but was obliged by his oath to uphold the law in spite of his personal beliefs.
It was difficult to listen to her speak of Captain Vere’s decision haunting him throughout his life — of the “conflict between law and justice,” as she put it — without taking it as a comment on her own job. A Supreme Court justice may, after all, decide that a law cannot be carried out justly, regardless of how it has been viewed under the Constitution. Justice Harry Blackmun struggled for years before coming to that conclusion about the death penalty. Perhaps it is no surprise that Ginsburg is drawn to an art form so often preoccupied with questions of crime and punishment, of vengeance and mercy.
Near the end of the afternoon, a member of the audience asked whether the Supreme Court was art or theater. “It’s both,” she responded, “with a healthy dose of real life mixed in.”
Ginsburg remains on the bench after two bouts with cancer, the death of her husband and increasingly frequent questions about whether she will resign while a Democratic president can still appoint her successor. One suspects she would serve another 20 years if she could.
Jesse Wegman is writer for The New York Times.