A speech writer's take on important speeches, and the craft of writing for an audience.
Friday, March 12, 2010
Speech By: Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg Title: Lighter Side of Life at the United States Supreme Court Date: March 13, 2009
Location: New England Law, Boston Length (words): 1756
In the wake of President Obama’s public excoriation of the Supreme Court during his State of the Union speech, Chief Justice Roberts waited until this week to issue his own very public reply. In a speech before the University at Alabama law school, Roberts answered a question about that moment from one of the students.
What he apparently found troubling was not the President taking issue with the opinion, “I have no problems with that.” Said the Chief Justice. “On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum.”
Intrigued, I went to the Supreme Court Web site, to see if I could find the speech itself posted. It wasn’t. Hopefully it will be in the near future. However, I did find posted there a delightful little talk by Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, at New England Law.
Entitled The Lighter Side of Life at the United States Supreme Court, it is a generous and revealing glimpse into how the court operates, both in legal and social terms. By generous, I mean Justice Ginsburg generously shares her insight into the collegial workings of the court, with her audience.
By generous, I also mean she is generous towards her colleagues on the court, even those who do not share her own legal philosophy. In talking about the fact there are sometimes “sharp differences” over certain issues on the court, she offers this observation: “But through it all, we remain good friends, people who respect each other, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. In recent terms, we have even managed to agree, unanimously, some 30 to 40 percent of the time. That contrasts with the Court’s 5-4 splits, which last term accounted for about 16 percent of the Court’s decisions. Our mutual respect is only momentarily touched, in most instances, by our sometimes strong disagreements on what the law is.” That unanimous agreement, 40 percent of the time, is something you seldom read about in the press. And it's actually quite remarkable, given the nine strong personalities, each with their own opinion, who occupy the Supreme Court's bench.
She goes on to add this important note about how she and her colleagues view their function: “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.”
While any Supreme Court Justice is likely to enjoy the rapt attention of any law school audience, her speech pays due attention to the essentials of a good speech. She engages her audience. “My aim is to describe not the Court’s heavy work, but the lighter side of life in our Marble Palace.”
She also avoids the “Ninth letter syndrome,” using "I" only 17 times, less than one percent of the time, while using the collective “we” and “our” almost twice that often. She is obviously working hard to establish a shared identification with her audience. This is an especially critical consideration in this case. When listening to a Supreme Court Justice speak, even a room full of lawyers must know that few, if any of them, will ever even be considered for elevation to such high station.
That Justice Ginsburg successfully navigates this chasm between her audience and herself, with grace, and a touch of gentle humor, is much to her credit. And, perhaps, her speech writer’s.
It is a speech heavy on the human side of the court, far less on the legal. I hope you will read, and, enjoy it, as I did.
And, if you want to know even more about how the court works, from the perspective of an insider, I highly recommend Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s book - The Supreme Court.
A veteran writer, researcher and lecturer, with more than 25 years experience in politics, political communications, and public relations. I’ve studied speech writing at NYU, and authored a number of published articles on the practice of lobbying as well as topics in American history.
My lecture on the War of 1812: 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War, is now a lecture in the New York Speakers in the Humanities bicentennial commemoration series.