Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on her way out of the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe when a front desk employee came running up. “I just adore you,” gushed Louise Ortiz. “You totally rock.”
The 81-year-old U.S. Supreme Court justice, clearly pleased, or so it seemed, posed for cellphone pictures with Ortiz and others before making her way through a cloudburst to her waiting SUV.
For years, first with her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, and more recently with her children and grandchildren, Ginsburg has been visiting Santa Fe in late summer. She comes mainly for the opera, which she adores, but also tours museums and galleries and lunches with friends she’s made here over the years. She’s scrambled up the ladders — 140 feet of them — leading to Alcove House (formerly the Ceremonial Cave) at Bandelier National Monument, visited Abiquiú, and met Bataan Death March survivor and former Taos Pueblo Gov. Tony Reyna.
This year, Ginsburg toured Museum Hill, performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for a French couple in a private home, spoke at a sold-out symposium on women at the new Drury Plaza Hotel downtown, visited with artist Juan Hamilton at his home/studio on Canyon Road — she picked up a piece of sculpture — and caught four of this season’s five productions at The Santa Fe Opera.
Everywhere she goes here, Ginsburg, an icon to women’s rights advocates, seems to be revered. JoAnn Balzer, an arts supporter, suggested, “Santa Feans especially love her because she’s one of us.” Besides the mutual love of opera, Balzer said, “We live in a city that shares her sensibilities and beliefs.”
And Ginsburg loves the city back. Not only the opera, and her friends here, but also the skies. The day before she was scheduled to go back to Washington to prepare for the court’s next session, she said, “I will think, ‘What happened to my beautiful skies?’ ”
She loves the music
In an interview during her visit, Ginsburg said her love of opera began in the 1940s, when she was 11. An aunt had taken her to see an abbreviated version of La Gioconda conducted by Dean Dixon at a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I was just blown away by the experience, the gorgeous music, the dramatic story,” she said.
She admires Dixon, an African American conductor whose career flourished after he moved to Europe but who, she said, “in all the time he conducted in the U.S., was never called maestro.”
Ginsburg has always loved music. She studied piano from age 8 into her second year at Cornell. At 9, she took cello lessons “because I wanted to get in the school orchestra, and it was easier than violin.”
She and her husband listened to Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts while he was stationed at Fort Sill, Okla., with the U.S. Army. During that time, she recalled, they went to Dallas to see the Met on tour and would spend a couple of days catching most of the performances. She’s been a guest on the Metropolitan Opera’s long-running radio broadcast.
Ginsburg thinks nothing of traveling to go to the opera. Next fall, she has plans to see Jake Heggie’s new work, Great Scott, at The Dallas Opera, as long as the court is not in session. Last September, she went to San Francisco for the premiere of Tobias Picker’s Dolores Claiborne.
She has even had a piece written about her, Derrick Wang’s comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg, which has been performed for the chambers of both justices but has never had a fully staged performance. In the piece, Antonin Scalia is locked up in a dark room for excessive dissenting and is saved by Justice Ginsburg, who crashes through a “glass ceiling” to rescue her fellow opera lover, adversary and longtime friend on the court.
The justice counts opera singers such as Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato among her friends. And she has many connections to The Santa Fe Opera’s artists and staff. Irwin Sugarman, a key member of the board, clerked for her early in his legal career. Kevin Burdette (Otto van der Puff in The Impresario and Chamberlain in Le Rossignol this season) studied law under Ginsburg’s daughter, Jane, who is on the faculty at Columbia Law School. And Ginsburg learned this summer that her grandson, actor Paul Spera, has been tutoring the daughter of Alex Penda (Leonore in Fidelio) in English at the singer’s Paris home.
Ginsburg often has said she would have liked to have been a singer. “I love music, but I have no talent,” she said. Asked which divas she would have liked to emulate, she named Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Beverly Sills and, “among mezzos,” Marilyn Horne.
‘An indispensable part of her life’
The Santa Fe company adores hosting Ginsburg. “It’s a real pleasure and honor for us to welcome her to each season of The Santa Fe Opera,” said General Director Charles MacKay. “She’s such a discerning, intelligent operagoer.”
Ginsburg usually tries to see the whole opera marathon on successive nights, he said, although she missed Carmen this year because of her travel schedule.
“Occasionally, she might skip the most standard piece,” MacKay said. “She is really keenly interested in new and unusual repertory. And the fact that she is so vigorous in her pursuit of new works and new experiences in opera is nothing short of amazing.”
MacKay said Ginsburg told him after Fidelio, set in Nazi-era Germany, that she felt the staging brought new meaning and urgency to the life-and-death theme in Beethoven’s opera. She also said she admired the prisoner chorus in Act 1. And she liked Dr. Sun Yat-sen, despite mixed reviews and her own feeling that Chinese might not be the ideal language for opera.
“She has a predilection for new works and likes to hear composers she hasn’t known before,” MacKay noted.
Before each opera performance, Ginsburg usually attends the preview buffet at the Opera Ranch with her entourage, which this year included son James Ginsburg, who heads his own classical record company, Cedille Records, in Chicago; daughter-in-law and soprano Patrice Michaels, a Cedille artist; daughter Jane Ginsburg; granddaughter Abby Ginsburg, 14; and Kip Purcell, an Albuquerque lawyer who clerked for her on the U.S. Court of Appeals District of Columbia Circuit.
“It’s great to go to the opera with her because she’s so knowledgeable,” Purcell said. Usually, he added, he and Ginsburg get to talk a bit about the past court session as well. Keeping up with her past clerks is important to her, he said, and she has regular reunions with them, typically in Washington.
U.S. marshals, who accompany Ginsburg everywhere, sweep the Opera Ranch and theater before her arrival, and either Brad Woolbright, the opera’s artistic coordinator, or MacKay escorts her to her seat in the orchestra section. Other patrons sometimes come up to pay their respects and thank her, at times citing cases from the court’s latest session. Occasionally, there are little flurries of spontaneous applause, MacKay said.
After the performance, Ginsburg often goes backstage to greet the cast and crew, many of whom are her friends.
She’s always dressed elegantly, in flowing pants, with carefully selected jewelry. A petite woman who moves slowly but assuredly, she is always poised, quiet and articulate, especially when discussing seminal court decisions in which she has played a role.
MacKay, who hosted a dinner for her at his home this year, said, “Santa Fe is an indispensable part of her life now.”
A certain chemistry
Justice Ginsburg’s relationship with Santa Fe goes back to her early days on the court. In 1994, the year after her appointment, she went to Denver for the dedication and renaming of the courthouse there for Byron White, whom she succeeded on the Supreme Court. She was assigned as a liaison with the 10th Circuit, and there she met Oliver Seth, longtime chief judge, and his wife, Jean, founder of one of the first galleries on Canyon Road. The Seths invited the Ginsburgs to Santa Fe.
Later, Ginsburg said, Jean Seth came to Washington on some museum business and visited Ginsburg. There was a “certain chemistry” between the two, Ginsburg said. So the justice and her husband, a prominent tax attorney, considered the Seths’ invitation and decided, “Why not?”
The Ginsburgs began visiting Santa Fe regularly, if not every year, in the summer, usually staying in a hotel, sometimes Rancho Encantado near Tesuque. In 2011, the year after Martin Ginsburg died, the justice said both her son and daughter wanted to join her here. But “it was getting a bit much for a hotel,” she said, so now her family stays in a private house in Tesuque, near the opera.
After Jean Seth died in 2013, her daughter Laurie took over arranging outings for the justice and her family.
We the people
Among the activities arranged this year was a visit to the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, where Ginsburg walked through the Will Wilson photography exhibit; stopped to acknowledge an image of Kevin Gover, a former Albuquerque lawyer who is now the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian; and examined some of the Wheelwright’s oldest and most significant jewelry, which was brought from the vault for her to see.
At the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, archivist Diane Bird gave Ginsburg a tour of the turquoise exhibit. Later, in the museum shop, where both she and her granddaughter bought some jewelry, she looked, without success, for a snake fetish like the one in the exhibit.
Her name helped draw more than 300 people, mostly women, to a symposium hosted this month by the Santa Fe-based Women’s International Study Center on how women are changing the world. In an informal conversation with her old friend, Albuquerque lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo, Ginsburg discussed some of the court’s most significant cases, including the one that resulted in Congress passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.
At a reception held at the former home of Leonora Curtin Paloheimo on Acequia Madre, many of the women from the symposium lined up for a chance to speak directly with the justice.
Teresa Leger de Fernandez, a Santa Fe-based attorney who specializes in Indian law, came to the reception with her niece, who is getting ready to apply to law school and, according to Leger, said “wow” a lot during the justice’s reflections.
Leger said she wanted to personally thank Ginsburg for raising the issue of how “we the people” has evolved over time. At the time the U.S. Constitution was written, Ginsburg told the audience, “we the people” referred to white, male property owners. Native Americans, Leger pointed out, could not vote until 1924 — and in New Mexico, not until 1948, when a Supreme Court ruling overturned the state’s refusal to allow Indians living on pueblo lands to vote.
“How could I not be both inspired and grateful for the stories Justice Ginsburg shared with us?” Leger said.
Cindy Onore was happy to help organize the afternoon reception because, she said, “I admire her for the positions she takes professionally, for the life she’s lived personally. She’s so articulate and forceful in her views, especially in the face of opposition. We need more voices like hers.”
Onore said she especially admired Ginsburg’s scalding dissent from the bench earlier this year in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the court said the government can’t make employers provide insurance coverage for things that conflict with their religious views, such as contraception. “The exemption sought by Hobby Lobby would … deny legions of women who do not hold their employers’ beliefs access to contraceptive coverage,” Ginsburg declared.
‘This is the hardest job I’ve ever had’
While she was visiting Santa Fe, Ginsburg said she thinks talk about her retirement is dying down. But in recent years, many Democrats have called for the octogenarian to step down so President Barack Obama can appoint her successor, presumably another liberal.
“My answer to those advisers is, ‘Who do you think our president could nominate now that you could see on the court?’ ” she said. “The way the government is today, many members of Congress are determined to say no to anybody the president wants.”
Ginsburg has beaten cancer twice, has a personal trainer — the same one since 1999 — and likes the collegiality of the court and its docket. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will,” she said.
She said John Paul Stevens, who retired from the court at age 90, is her model.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” said Ginsburg, who also has served as a law professor, general counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union and a mom. “I go to sleep thinking about these cases, not about getting older.”
Contact Anne Constable at 986-3022 or email@example.com.