Appearing on Egyptian television before concluding a four-day trip in Egypt, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg extolled the virtues of the U.S. Constitution but urged Egyptians to look to other countries' newer constitutions for guidance as they craft their own in the coming months.
The U.S. Embassy in Cairo's website noted in a Feb. 2 release that Ginsburg concluded her trip to Egypt "following four days of discussions and programs in both Cairo and Alexandria with judges and legal experts as well as law faculty and students." She had intended to "'listen and learn' with her Egyptian counterparts as they begin Egypt's constitutional transition to democracy," according to the embassy.
Yet while Ginsburg's interview, posted on YouTube on Wednesday, lauded the Founding Fathers' "grand general ideas that become more effective over the course of ... more than two sometimes-turbulent centuries," she also said she "would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012," given its original exclusion of women, slaves and Native Americans.
Since World War II several other models have emerged that offer more specific and contemporary guarantees of rights and liberties, she said, pointing to South Africa's constitution, which she called a "really great piece of work" for its embrace of basic human rights and guarantee of an independent judiciary. She also noted Canada's charter of rights and freedoms and the European Convention of Human Rights.
"Why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world? I'm a very strong believer in listening and learning from others," she said.
Among those currently sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court no other justice has publicly advised another country on the creation of a constitution. In 1960, eight years before he became a justice, Thurgood Marshall traveled to Kenya to draft its bill of rights, which he modeled after the European Convention on Human Rights. Unlike the U.S. Constitution, the Kenyan document guarantees rights to education, health, welfare and a right to work.
Nevertheless, Ginsburg spent most of the 18-minute interview spelling out all the ways the Egyptians could take inspiration from the United States' Constitution, from the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech and a free press to the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause that she, as a lawyer in the 1970s, convinced the court to expand to protect women's rights.
"We were just tremendously fortunate in the United States that the men who met in Philadelphia were very wise," Ginsburg said. "Now it is true that they were lacking one thing," she continued with a chuckle. "And that is that there were no women as part of the Constitutional Convention."
"It's a very inspiring time -- that you have overthrown a dictator and that you are striving to achieve a genuine democracy," Ginsburg told Al Hayat TV. "I think people in the United States are hoping that this transition will work and that it will genuinely be a government of, by and for the people."
Jan. 25 marked the one-year anniversary since the start of the Tahrir Square protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak's nearly three-decade regime.
When asked by her interviewer how best to draft a constitution and protect it from contemporary political pressures (perhaps alluding to Islamic parties' dominance in the new parliament's lower house), Justice Ginsburg answered, "A constitution, as important as it is, will mean nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom."
"If the people don’t care, then the best constitution in the world won’t make any difference," she said.
"The spirit of liberty," she continued, "has to be in the population."