Fact Check

What Did Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thomas Jefferson Say About the Constitution?

An out-of-context, incomplete sentence and an apocryphal quotation do not make for an informative comparison.

Published Oct. 12, 2018

 (Rob Crandall / Shutterstock.com)
Image Via Rob Crandall / Shutterstock.com
A meme contrasts viewpoints on the U.S. Constitution expressed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thomas Jefferson.

An October 2018 meme attempted to contrast a supposed disdain for the U.S. Constitution expressed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, with the reverence for that document articulated by Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States:

What this meme actually contrasts, however, is an out-of-context, incomplete sentence taken from a lengthy interview and an apocryphal quotation.

The words attributed to Associate Justice Ginsburg ("I would not look to the U.S. Constitution") had nothing to do with her suggesting that her judicial decisions were not rooted in the principles embodied the U.S. Constitution, as implied by their juxtaposition with the purported Jefferson quotation. Rather, in the course of a 2012 interview for Arabic-language Al-Hayat TV, Ginsburg expressed her opinion that a newly democratizing Egypt "should be be aided by all the constitution-writing that has gone one since the end of World War II" rather than relying on "the oldest written constitution still in force in the world":

It is a very inspiring time - that you have overthrown a dictator, and that you are striving to achieve a genuine democracy. So I think people in the United States are hoping that this transition will work, and that there will genuinely be a government of, by, and for the people ...

I met with the head of the elections commission. I think that the first step has gone well, and that elections have been held for the lower house that everyone has considered to be free and fair. So that's one milestone, and the next will be the drafting of a constitution ...

I can't speak about what the Egyptian experience should be, because I'm operating under a rather old constitution. The United States, in comparison to Egypt, is a very new nation, and yet we have the oldest written constitution still in force in the world ...

Let me say first that 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. So the spirit of liberty has to be in the population, and then the constitution -- first, it should safeguard basic fundamental human rights, like our First Amendment, the right to speak freely, and to publish freely, without the government as a censor ...

You should certainly be aided by all the constitution-writing that has gone one since the end of World War II. I would not look to the US constitution, if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa. That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights, had an independent judiciary ... It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done. Much more recent than the US constitution -- Canada has a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, why not take advantage of what there is elsewhere in the world?

As noted above, the statement attributed to Thomas Jefferson in this meme is irrelevant here because it is apocryphal. It doesn't sound like something Jefferson would say (at least as expressed here), it is found in none of Jefferson's writings or papers, and is not known to have appeared anywhere prior to its posting on the internet in 2004.


The Middle East Media Research Institute.   "US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Egyptians: Look to the Constitutions of South Africa or Canada, Not to the US Constitution."     30 January 2012.

Monticello.org.   "The Greatest Danger to American Freedom (Spurious Quotation)."     Accessed 12 October 2018.

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.