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Ginsburg shares lighter side of Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court justices shake hands before each court session, toast their birthdays with a glass of white wine and some even go hunting together.

Those were some of the "behind-the-scenes" highlights Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared with a gathering of the Association of Business Trial Lawyers Friday at the US Grant hotel.

Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as just the second female member of the U.S. Supreme Court, said the justices genuinely get along with each other, most dining together for lunch every day.

The lunchtime discussion may include the performance of the lawyers in the courtroom, a new musical production in town or their colleague's children and grandchildren.

Birthdays are celebrated with a pre-lunch toast and a chorus of "Happy Birthday," generally sung by Antonin Scalia -- the only one of the nine who can carry a tune, according to Ginsburg.

"The work at the Supreme Court is very challenging, enormously time consuming, but tremendously satisfying," Ginsburg said. "We are constantly reading, thinking and trying to write so that at least lawyers and other judges will understand our rule."

In stating the obvious, she acknowledged the justices have sharp differences on certain issues, including federally mandated health care, affirmative action, the Second Amendment and public school desegregation plans.

"But through it all, we remain collegial," she said, "and most of the time we genuinely enjoy each other's company. All of us appreciate that the institution we serve is far more important than the particular individuals who compose the court's bench at any given time. Our job is the best work a jurist anywhere can have."

Ginsburg said one of her favorite events is a dinner, convened every two years, between the women of the Supreme Court and the female members of the Senate. When the first dinner was held in 1994, there were only two justices and six senators. Last year, three justices and 17 female senators attended the dinner.

"Not enough, but certainly heading in the right direction," Ginsburg said.

When asked about what non-court-related activities she and the other justices like to engage in, Ginsburg remarked how Elena Kagan likes to go hunting with Scalia.

Ginsburg also was asked if, during her time as an appellate judge, she ever had the Supreme Court in mind when crafting an opinion.

"I did not try to predict what the Supreme Court would do. I tried to write what I thought the Supreme Court should do," she joked.

Ginsburg was candid about more serious topics relating to the job, including her role in getting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed.

Ledbetter brought a gender pay discrimination lawsuit against the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. (NYSE: GT) in 1998, filing her claim nearly 20 years after the alleged discrimination took place. It took her so long to file her complaint because she didn't realize she was receiving less pay than her male counterparts for the same work until many years later.

The case made it to the Supreme Court, where in a 5-4 decision in 2007, the justices ruled Ledbetter's complaint wasn't filed within 180 days of the alleged violation, as required by law. Ginsburg was among those dissenting, arguing that the pay discrimination took place in small increments and was difficult to recognize.

In a rare occurrence, she issued her opinion from the bench, imploring lawmakers to take action. "The ball is now in Congress' court to correct the error into which my colleagues have fallen," she wrote then.

Two years later, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama, and Ginsburg called it one of the most satisfying moments of her career.

She said dissenting from the bench serves a purpose.

"Not more than twice a year, sometimes not at all, I feel that the court not only has gotten it wrong but egregiously so, and I want to emphasize that," she said. "So to capture the attention of the public, I will summarize the dissent from the bench."

Ginsburg said Friday she doesn’t read all the amicus briefs submitted to the court, but her law clerks do, and they fill her in on the important points. She said she would like attorneys to consolidate their briefs into one that will be read.

Ginsburg also said the Supreme Court can grant review to too many cases.

"I don't think that we can go terribly wrong when we deny cert (review) because if the issue is really all that important, we will then have another opportunity; it will come to us again," she said.

Ginsburg, who turns 80 next month, said she has no plans to retire anytime soon.

"When I am no longer able to give it my all, that will be the time for me to step down," she said.

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