Justice Ginsburg Weighs Legal Lessons of Opera

Justice Ginsburg Weighs Legal Lessons of Opera

Associated Press
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.”

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.

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

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.

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.”