Originally published by The New York Times
Bedecked in a multicolored collar that reflected the diversity of the 201 new citizens before her, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over a naturalization ceremony on Tuesday at the New-York Historical Society, treating her rapt audience to a history lesson, one crackling with life and liberty.
Justice Ginsburg told them that her own father arrived in this country at 13 with no fortune and no ability to speak English, and yet, she would soon be administering the oath of citizenship to them as a member of the highest court in the land.
Across the packed rows of seats at the historical society’s Upper West Side theater sat people from 59 countries, with first names like Islam, Hussein, Kazi, Angie and Sunday, and with professions as diverse as pastors and pediatric cancer doctors. Two men from Guinea sat in the third row and learned they were both named Mamadou Alpha Diallo, both taxi drivers.
“We are a nation made strong by people like you,” Justice Ginsburg said.
It seemed only appropriate that the Brooklyn-born jurist known by her fans as the Notorious R.B.G. (a play on the rapper Notorious B.I.G.) delivered her remarks at the oldest museum in the city. Justice Ginsburg, 85, is believed to be the first Supreme Court justice to take part in a naturalization ceremony in New York in recent years, even though the court does not keep detailed records of officiating appearances.
“Because I’ve seen her on the news and the wonderful things she has done for people and now getting to see her live, I had tears coming down my eyes,” said Sunday Aito, 50, originally from Nigeria.
Despite the contentious climate surrounding immigration — and who gets admission to the country — Justice Ginsburg made no mention of the Trump administration in her remarks. The Supreme Court will hear arguments this year about the legality of President Trump’s travel ban; in a December Supreme Court decision that allowed the third version to continue during the legal challenges, both Justices Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.
Justice Ginsburg will mark her 25th year on the bench in August.
After officiating at the ceremony, she went upstairs in the museum for a private talk with young fellows from the Immigrant Justice Corps, a program for immigration lawyers and practitioners founded in New York by Robert A. Katzmann, the chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
To preside over a naturalization ceremony at the historical society was Justice Ginsburg’s idea.
She said in a statement that she had read a New York Times article about a program at the historical society for citizenship applicants. “I thought it was a grand idea,” Justice Ginsburg said. “So, I wrote to N.Y.H.S. and said if ever I am in town when they had a naturalization ceremony, I would be glad to participate.”
The Citizenship Project offers free classes to green card holders who are studying for the naturalization test, involving art, documents and artifacts at the museum. Since it began in July 2017, more than 600 people have completed the classes, said its president, Louise Mirrer, and the museum hopes to reach 1,000 by July.
Ms. Mirrer was struck by the compact, powerful civics lesson Justice Ginsburg delivered. “She was careful to present this nation as one that is heavily into self-improvement,” Ms. Mirrer said.
In her remarks Justice Ginsburg detailed the evolving history of representation and inclusion, from the preamble to the Constitution to the abolition of slavery to the amendments that allowed women and blacks to vote.
“Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than other nations, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” Justice Ginsburg said.
Justice Ginsburg acknowledged that the United States was at its outset an imperfect union, and is still beset by poverty, low voting numbers and by the “struggle to achieve greater understanding of each other across racial, religious and socio-economic lines.”
She urged its newest citizens to vote and to foster unity. “We have made huge progress, but the work of perfection is scarcely done,” she said.
As a champion of women’s rights and equality, Justice Ginsburg proved inspirational to men and women in the audience. Pranitha Mantrala, 35, a physician originally from India, said the message was clear: “I think we can achieve anything.”
She became a citizen along with her husband, Srikanth Ambati, 38, who is a pediatric cancer specialist at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “It meant a lot for me, especially her parents coming from such a background, and her going into such a high profession,” Dr. Mantrala said. “It’s adorable.”
Yusif Abubakari, 42, born in Ghana, was struck by Justice Ginsburg’s “humbleness,” he said. “She is supposed to be at home but she came because of me, because of us, and that made me feel so special today,” Mr. Abubakari said, adding, “May God bless her and give her more life and prosperity.”