Justice Ginsburg Weighs Legal Lessons of Opera

Sunday, August 05, 2012 - 07:35 PM

Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and  Elena Kagan attend President Obama's State of the Union speech on January 24, 2012. Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan attend President Obama's State of the Union speech on January 24, 2012. (Getty)

It turns out lawyers and opera singers have more in common than booming voices and a love of melodrama.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is among the jurists who have looked for legal lessons in arias, and she got a chance Friday to indulge both passions at the American Bar Association's annual meeting in Chicago.

Along with U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, Ginsburg took part in an unusual panel discussion of the intersection of opera and the law, listening to a few live performances of some of opera's greatest works. They mused about such issues as original intent, in both interpreting the law and operas such as Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Some later productions of that opera have scrubbed the score of elements that could be considered racist or sexist.

Weighing in, Ginsburg said she's "certainly an originalist," but that law - like opera - could "grow with society."

"The founders of our country were great men with a vision," she said. "They were held back from realizing their ideas by the times in which they lived. But I think their notion was that society would evolve and the meaning of some of the grand clauses in the Constitution ... would grow with society, so that the Constitution would always be in tune with the society that law is meant to serve."

Turning to Benjamin Britten's tragic opera "Billy Budd," the panelists were asked to consider whether the character of a ship captain might have found a way to spare the life of a sailor who was doomed to hang after being wrongfully accused of organizing a mutiny and killing his accuser out of frustration.

Accompanied by piano, a singer performed "I Accept Their Verdict," the aria sung by Captain Vere after Billy Budd is court-martialed and sentenced to death.

"Well, I think there was" a way the captain could have saved him, Ginsburg said. "He didn't have to impanel the court martial on a ship. He could have kept Billy and could have had the trial occur on British soil, but there was this tremendous fear of mutiny."

Verrilli said the captain's dilemma was not unlike those faced by many lawyers and judges.

"I sympathize with the captain in that doing your duty in order to maintain fidelity to the rule of law ... can exact a significant personal toll sometimes," he said.

Ginsburg noted that Herman Melville, author of the novella upon which the opera is based, modeled the captain's character after his father-in-law Lemuel Shaw, a judge in Massachusetts during the period leading up to the Civil War. Shaw deeply opposed slavery, but ordered a slave returned to his owner because it was required by the Constitution.

She also recalled that late Chief Justice William Rehnquist's gold-striped robe was inspired by a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe," a satirical - and less than kind - portrayal of the legal profession.

"One day, my dear old chief, who loved Gilbert and Sullivan, appears in the robing room with his new robe, and it had four thin gold stripes. People were aghast," she said, as the audience laughed.

She said some wondered if he was trying to look like a master sergeant, but "I laughed because I knew exactly what he had done."

-- JASON KEYSER

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Comments [1]

Reg from Australia

Should we be afraid when the legal system needs the prompting of opera before extending it's contemplative horizons?

Aug. 11 2012 09:02 PM

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