WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's midwinter break is often used by justices to fly off to sunny vacation spots or European capitals where they address an audience or two on someone else's tab. But this year, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is on a different sort of visit to two North African countries where popular uprisings helped topple longtime leaders.
Ginsburg wrapped up a State Department-sponsored visit to Egypt on Wednesday with a public seminar at the Cairo University law school. The 78-year-old Ginsburg told students she was inspired by last year's protests that led to the end of Hosni Mubarak's regime.
"This is the most wonderful time in which to live and be among the young people who are helping your country and bringing about change during this exceptional transitional period to a real democratic state," Ginsburg said, according to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. "Think of the people who lived before you and did not have this opportunity because they lived under a dictatorial regime."
The justice, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, and her daughter, Jane, a legal expert on intellectual property, spent four days in Cairo and Alexandria meeting with judges, legal scholars and students. Egypt is set to start rewriting its constitution next month.
"This gives justices, folks who are writing legislation, folks who are working on court regulations a chance to talk to the most senior American justices and members of the judicial branch about their experiences of a lifetime of working on these kinds of issues, about various ways to solve the problems of checks and balances," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. "And it is a chance for some of these folks, who have less experience in a democratic system, to learn a little bit more about how we do things."
Last week before leaving, Ginsburg met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss the trip.
From Egypt, Ginsburg continued her work with the State Department by heading to Tunisia, where the Arab Spring protest movement had its start. Tunisians recently marked the one-year anniversary of the revolution that ended the dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparked uprisings around the Arab world.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, meanwhile, flew nearly 8,000 miles but technically never left American soil. Sotomayor spent a few days in U.S. possessions in the South Pacific, visiting Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
Sotomayor, 57, sidestepped questions about Guam's status as an unincorporated U.S. territory with no electoral votes or voting power in Congress. But the justice said she was quite familiar with the issue, as the New York-born child of Puerto Rican natives. Puerto Rico has a slightly different status as a commonwealth, but also lacks votes for president and a vote in Congress.
In both places, debate has waxed and waned for decades over seeking statehood, claiming independence or maintaining the current arrangement, she said.
"I'm sure that if you have the same degree of discussion in Guam that you have in Puerto Rico, I'm sure I probably, if I spent time here, could do the same thing I do in Puerto Rico — argue all three views equally well," Sotomayor said, as quoted by the Pacific Daily News. "I know every argument that everybody makes. You could give me a position in a debate and I would defend it to the end. And I would still not tell you that I know what the answer is for the individual Puerto Rican or the individual Guam citizen about what is the right choice. That right choice is something you will have to come to."
Sotomayor is currently in Hawaii, spending a week at the University of Hawaii law school.
Retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wound up her time as president of the Alfalfa Club on Saturday with remarks one wouldn't expect to hear at her former place of employment.
The club's sole mission is to put on a black-tie, steak-and-lobster feast while giving high-powered politicians and business leaders another opportunity to rub elbows and share some laughs. Saturday night's dinner was, as in years past, off limits to reporters.
But according to two accounts, O'Connor waded into the Republican presidential campaign with a joke about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich that drew a lot of laughter.
According to ESPN's Tony Kornheiser, who was at the Capital Hilton for the dinner, O'Connor said that of the two leading Republican candidates, "one is a practicing polygamist, and he's not even the Mormon."
Romney is a Mormon, and often points out that he and his wife, Ann, have been married for 42 years. Gingrich's three marriages have been much discussed in the campaign. The Reliable Source column in The Washington Post had a similar account.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy also are Alfalfa Club members. O'Connor was among the first group of women admitted as members in the 1990s.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.