The passing of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a deeply sad and momentous occasion. As an Associate Justice of the Court, Justice Ginsburg was a steady and passionate voice for equal rights and equal opportunity. Given the moniker the “Notorious RBG,” she became a hero and pop culture icon to so many women, especially, who rightly looked to her as a role model.
Justice Ginsburg’s important contributions to American jurisprudence will be studied by lawyers, judges, law professors, and law students for many years. After all, the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, and the voting patterns and written opinions of individual Justices, attract considerable attention. Every American law student takes a required course in Constitutional Law, where Supreme Court cases interpreting the U.S. Constitution form the main focus of study. In my Employment Discrimination course, we devote primary attention to Supreme Court decisions interpreting major federal employment discrimination laws.
Ginsburg’s death leaves a significant void on the Court and has triggered what will be an ugly and divisive political battle over the confirmation of her successor. If Donald Trump and Senate leader Mitch McConnell succeed in filling this vacancy, it is likely that the ideological balance of the Court will be tipped in a way that threatens reversals in women’s rights, workers’ rights, and civil rights generally for a generation.
But I shall leave that for a later commentary. Rather, as we reflect upon Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s signature contributions, I’d like to focus on her legacy as a public interest lawyer. Even had she never sat for a day on America’s highest court, her work as a pioneering advocate for needed changes in the law would have left a great record of accomplishment. As Moira Donegan writes for the Guardian (link here):
Strategic, contemplative and disciplined, but with a passion for the feminist cause that is rarely admitted into the halls of power, Ginsburg established an impressive legal legacy long before she became a judge. Over the course of a two-decade career as a lawyer before her appointment to the DC circuit court of appeals, she successfully argued cases that expanded civil rights law and 14th amendment protections to women, undoing a dense network of laws that had codified sex discrimination in all areas of American life.
Ginsburg is the rare supreme court justice whose most significant work was done before she joined the court….Ginsburg personally argued six gender discrimination cases before the then all-male supreme court, winning five. She built on her victories one by one, establishing precedents that made future victories easier to win.
First was Reed v Reed (1971), a monumental victory that struck down an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. That case extended the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment to women, barring laws that discriminated by sex. Ginsburg followed this case with victories in Frontiero v Richardson (1973), barring gender discrimination in compensation of military members, and Weinberger v Wiesenfeld (1975), striking down gender discrimination in state benefits. Her tactics were savvy; she framed gender discrimination in ways that made the practice seem unreasonable even to hardened misogynists.
Indeed, perhaps Attorney Ginsburg’s body of work best informs everyday lawyers and law students who wish to use their training to advocate for desired changes in the law. While serving as a law professor at the Columbia and Rutgers law schools in the 1970s, she forged an association with the American Civil Liberties Union that would fuel her advocacy work. This included co-founding the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and serving as its General Counsel. The period covered much of her most significant civil rights litigation work.
It is a testament to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s character, determination, and ability that she has left multiple legacies. Among these, her work on the Supreme Court will be the defining one to many. But I hope that lawyers and law students, particularly, won’t forget her vital contributions as a legal advocate.