This summer was another busy one for the Supreme Court. During the summer term — which we define as the period between the last day October Term 2018 decisions were handed down (June 27, 2019) and the first day of oral arguments for OT 2019 (October 7, 2019) — the justices participated in 52 events. Below is a selection of what they’ve been up to.
Justice Neil Gorsuch kicked off the summer term on July 1 across the pond at the University of Oxford, where he participated in an ABA leadership conference. Later that month, both he and the newest justice, Brett Kavanaugh, led two-week courses abroad for George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School: Gorsuch taught national security and separation of powers in Padua, Italy, while Kavanaugh, in his only event of the summer term, taught a class titled “Creation of the Constitution” in Runnymede, England, about an hour southwest of London. (With the exception of a mid-September media law conference in central London featuring Justice Stephen Breyer, all other events we tracked this summer took place in the United States.)
On July 2, less than a week after the final OT 2018 opinion was announced, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited Georgetown Law, where she discussed her legacy and the historical arc of women’s rights. While noting that many of the formal obstacles to women’s career paths have been dismantled since her work at the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, Ginsburg nevertheless acknowledged that “what remains is what has often been called unconscious bias.”
Several weeks later, on July 18, Justice Elena Kagan appeared at Georgetown as well, where she recounted her memorable Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment opinion from four years prior, which incorporated numerous Spider-Man references. “I read Spider-Man as a kid,” Kagan recalled, adding: “If you can’t get a Spider-Man reference into a case like that, you’re not working hard enough.” Kagan also paid her respects to the late Justice John Paul Stevens, who had passed away two days earlier. “He seemed to all of us — eternal,” she said of the man whom she succeeded on the Supreme Court.
His mind remained clever at 99. … He spoke of court cases, even footnotes and opinions, his military service in World War II, ballgames he’d attended. His conversation was engaging and his memory amazing. Perhaps he knew that at age 99 distance travel was a risk, but he wanted to experience fully the joys of being alive and he did just that almost to his last breath.
Then Ginsburg, a longtime admirer of the theater, quoted “Hamlet”: “Take him for all in all. We shall not look upon his like again.” Two days later, Ginsburg would continue her annual tradition of speaking about opera and the law at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, telling the audience: “I attribute my success in law school to my daughter. She was 14 months when I started law school. My day had two parts to it: I went to school at 8 in the morning. I worked as hard [as] I could until 4 in the afternoon, and then I left and it was Jane, my daughter’s, time. We went to the park, we played silly games, I fed and bathed her, she went to sleep.”
In August, the justices’ public schedules were a bit lighter, although Ginsburg, Kagan and Sotomayor each hosted events. Three days after the Supreme Court announced on August 23 that Ginsburg had completed a three-week treatment for pancreatic cancer, the 86-year-old justice received an honorary degree from the University at Buffalo Law School. On August 31, she attended the Library of Congress National Book Festival to discuss her book “My Own Words.”
Late August marked the unofficial launchpad for a judicial book-tour season of sorts. Sotomayor spoke about her children’s book “Turning Pages” at the Mississippi Book Festival on August 17, the beginning of a frenetic cross-country schedule through the end of September that would include a dozen events at venues from Tufts University in Massachusetts to Santa Monica High School in California and many places in between.
On September 1, Sotomayor spoke at the AJC Decatur Book Festival in Georgia to promote her newest children’s book, “Just Ask! Be Different, Be Brave, Be You.” Six days (and three events) later, she visited Portland Community College’s Sylvania campus, where she discussed the inspiration for the book, which features young characters suffering from various disabilities. As a diabetic child herself, Sotomayor explained, “I was embarrassed by my diabetes. I didn’t want to show other people, especially kids, that I had to take an injection every day. … I want to be a voice for all the kids like me who are different, who have different physical and sometimes mental conditions and need a voice who says it’s OK to ask, it’s OK to be different, it’s OK to be brave.”
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the justice later headlined a unique conversation at the Kennedy Center with the 15-year-old debater, actress and fellow New Yorker Rosdely Ciprian, who was appearing in the Heidi Schreck Broadway play “What the Constitution Means to Me.” The precocious Ciprian turned the eponymous question around on her interlocutor: “What does the Constitution mean to you?” To which Sotomayor responded that “it creates the structure under which we as Americans live with each other, because that’s what laws mean. That’s what laws mean to me.” (The Kennedy Center video of the event is available here.)
In the midst of her slew of book events, Sotomayor attended the Judicial Conference for the 10th Circuit on September 10, where she addressed her relationship with Kavanaugh following his controversial appointment to the Supreme Court after being accused of sexual assault: “[We] are all human beings, we all have pasts. … Now, whether things occurred or didn’t occur, all of that is irrelevant. It is yesterday, today is today and moving forward, I have to work with him. And because I have to work with him, my measure of him has to be what he is doing as a justice now.”
Sotomayor also traveled to Waterloo, New York, on September 14 to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame, alongside other pioneering women such as Angela Davis, Jane Fonda and Gloria Allred.
Sotomayor wasn’t the only one promoting a new book this summer. Gorsuch released a collection of essays titled “A Republic, If You Can Keep It” on September 10, precipitating a travel-packed month of his own in which he headlined 10 separate events.
On September 6, he keynoted the Texas Supreme Court Historical Society’s John Hemphill Dinner in Austin before heading out west to appear at a series of events in California: a September 10 conversation and book signing at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute in Simi Valley, followed by two speaking engagements the next day at Pepperdine Law School in Malibu and the Richard Nixon Library & Museum in Yorba Linda. At Pepperdine, where Gorsuch appeared with two of his former clerks, he singled out one of them, David Feder, for Feder’s contributions to the book, noting wryly that “you don’t have to be 65 and gray-haired to write a book.”
The following week, Gorsuch spent time in Washington, D.C., where he discussed his book and signed copies at the William G. McGowan Theater on September 16. The next day, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, he regaled the audience with tales of the Supreme Court confirmation process in a conversation with the center’s president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen.
Then, it was back to Texas for more appearances at presidential centers. On September 18, Gorsuch spoke at the George W. Bush Presidential Center and the next day held a conversation with Mark Updegrove of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation.
As the summer came to a close, Gorsuch traveled to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, on September 20 and attempted to reassure his listeners that the justices’ votes could not be easily categorized along partisan lines, pointing out that only about a quarter to a third of the Supreme Court’s opinions are decided on a 5-4 vote. “It’s been the same percentage since 1945. … The only thing that’s changed is nothing has changed. And in 1945, eight of the nine justices had been appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. If we’re able to agree as well as they did, I’d say we’re doing all right.”
On September 26, Gorsuch capped his presidential-themed book tour with a conversation presented by the Supreme Court Historical Society and The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.
Ginsburg, meanwhile, showed no signs of slowing down following her cancer treatment, adopting a blistering September schedule. On September 3, she delivered the Frank and Kula Kumpuris lecture to a crowd of about 13,000 people in Arkansas, after being introduced by former President Bill Clinton. Demand for the event was so high that the venue had to be moved to the Verizon Arena.
On September 8 in Chicago, Ginsburg presented an award at a soirée hosted by her son James’ company, Cedille Records. The following day, she visited the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and joked about her celebrity status: “I must say, sometimes it can be a little overbearing when everyone wants to take my picture though I’m 86 years old.”
Three days later, Ginsburg returned to Georgetown Law for the second time in just over two months to welcome first-year law students. When asked what she would add to the Constitution, Ginsburg suggested the Equal Rights Amendment: “I have three granddaughters. … I can point to the First Amendment protecting their freedom of speech, but I can’t point to anything that explicitly says that men and women have equal stature before the law. Every constitution in the world [since 1950 says] that; ours doesn’t.”
Ginsburg was back in her native New York by mid-month, as a guest of honor for a Moment Magazine dinner at the Yale Club on September 18th. The next day, David Rubenstein hosted her for a conversation at the 92nd Street Y. Among other things, she reflected on her well-known friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Reflecting on his love of proper grammar, she recalled: “Every once in a while he’d come to chambers or he’d call me on the phone and say, ‘Ruth, you made a grammatical error.’ He never did it in writing to embarrass me before my colleagues. And sometimes I would say to him, ‘You know, this opinion is so strident. You’ll be more persuasive if you toned it down.’ And that was advice he never, never took.”
The following week, Ginsburg found herself in Raleigh, North Carolina, to deliver the Lillian Parker Wallace Lecture at Meredith College. Recounting her early years as an attorney when she occasionally slept a mere two hours per night, Ginsburg admitted that, these days, “I live in deadly fear of falling asleep on the bench.”
Finally, Ginsburg returned to the nation’s capital for three events on consecutive days starting on September 25. That night, she was joined by Sotomayor for a Ronald Reagan Institute event celebrating the life and achievements of the first female Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Sotomayor noted that the pioneering justice’s appointment “gave me hope,” while Ginsburg praised O’Connor’s insistence on debating ideas, not denigrating people: “In that,” Ginsburg declared, “I tried to follow her lead.”
The next day, at the annual Action for Cancer Awareness Awards luncheon, Ginsburg received the Special Recognition Award from the Prevent Cancer Foundation for “inspiring Americans of all ages to prioritize health and fitness to reduce their cancer risk.”
Then, wrapping up an exceptionally busy month, the justice spoke at a dinner at American University Washington College of Law in honor of Professor Emeritus Herman Schwartz.
With 35 events, September 2019 was tied for the second-busiest month for Supreme Court justices since SCOTUS Map started tracking their public events back in July 2014. (The busiest was September 2014, with 45 events, followed by September 2019 and September 2016, both with 35.)
The first days of October have seen some of the less active justices headline events as well: Breyer, for example, spoke at Guilford College in North Carolina on October 2, and then delivered the Constitution Day lecture at Rhodes College in Tennessee the very next day. Also on October 3, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke at a dedication ceremony for Hillsdale College’s new campus chapel, declaring: “The presence of a chapel on a college campus is particularly important. In fact, in this age of popular iconoclasm, building a chapel on a college campus is all but forbidden.”