Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepted the 2019 Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture and spoke candidly about President Donald Trump's impeachment

By Sean Neumann and Liz McNeil
December 18, 2019 01:07 PM

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is “everything you would expect her to be,” according to Katie Couric, who praised the judge at a gala Monday in New York City where the 86-year-old accepted a $1 million philosophy award and spoke bluntly on a number of issues, including President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

The longtime news anchor complimented Ginsburg’s “intelligence and grace” in an exclusive interview with PEOPLE on the red carpet before the justice was honored at the 2019 Berggruen Prize Gala at the New York City Public Library.

Ginsburg was awarded the $1 million Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture — an annual award given to “thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world,” according to the Berggruen Institute.

She is the first non-philosopher to win the Berggruen award, which was first given out in 2016. She donated the $1 million prize to a list of charities that support girls and women, societal causes and the arts.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Eugene Gologursky/Getty

A number of celebrities, including Olivia Wilde, Karlie Kloss, Al Roker, and Nico Tortorella were also in attendance. Ginsburg did not participate in the red carpet event before the ceremony, where Couric praised the federal judge’s “soft-spoken” and “highly intelligent” personality.

“She’s lovely,” Couric told PEOPLE before the event. “She has a quiet intelligence and grace, and a razor-sharp wit.”

Eugene Gologursky/Getty
Eugene Gologursky/Getty

Ginsburg participated in a Q&A with BBC journalist Razia Iqbal afterward, where she spoke candidly on everything from her work on women’s rights issues and President Donald Trump’s likely impeachment trial in the Senate, where a number of Republican senators have already said they plan to acquit Trump of his impeachment charges weeks before the trial is set to begin.

“If a judge said that, a judge would be disqualified,” Ginsburg said. “One who is a judge or a trier must be able to be impartial.”

Iqbal asked Ginsburg if President Trump’s requests for the Supreme Court to halt the impeachment process had any merit, but the justice quickly shot down the idea.

“The president is not a lawyer,” Ginsburg said. “He’s not law-trained.”

Ginsburg spoke regretfully about the political divide that’s swept across the United States since the 2016 election, saying she hopes “good people on both sides of the aisle who will say stop this dysfunction.”

Still, she asserted, “Young people are my hope. And when I, when my granddaughter, who is here tonight, who is doing what she can to make things better in our society. Think of Malala [Yousafzai] … Greta Thunberg. I think the young people say, ‘I’m fired up.’ And they want our country to be what it should be. So my faith and one of the things that makes me an optimist are the other people.”

Couric, when speaking to PEOPLE, held Ginsburg up as a prime example of what bipartisan politics should be like.

“What surprised me [about Ginsburg] I think is how close she and Justice [Antonin] Scalia were,” she said. “They used to go to the opera together and drink — they loved good wine. I think in this very sort of polarized age and era, the idea that two polar opposites could be so close and have such genuine fondness and affection for each other just … gives me hope that somehow people can have a relationship even if they don’t see eye to eye.”

And Ginsburg also spoke to the camaraderie between the justices, despite party lines. Addressing her health as of late — which included taking time off for pancreatic cancer treatment in August — Ginsburg said, “As different as we are, the court is the collegial place I’ve ever worked.”

“And I can tell you that from a personal experience surviving four cancer bouts with my colleagues around me and made it possible for me not to miss a single case,” she continued.