By Susan Gluss
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, considered the “Thurgood Marshall” of the women’s rights movement, addressed a packed house of Berkeley Law students, faculty, and staff this week. As the diminutive Justice walked to the podium, the crowd erupted into thunderous applause. The event was held just blocks from the law school at the First Congregational Church to accommodate the capacity crowd of 600.
Ginsburg’s visit coincided with a personal milestone: 20 years on the High Court. During the past two decades of the Court’s conservative dominance, she’s become a leading dissenter. She talked about some of the more contested rulings of the 2012-2013 session, among others, often quoting from her own dissents.
Ginsburg discussed affirmative action, voting rights, employment discrimination, and same-sex marriage (the Justice was the first to officiate a same-sex wedding in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago).
During this term, the Court struck down a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It was a decision Ginsburg called “profoundly misguided.” She noted that, in 2006, Congress voted to re-authorize the act by an overwhelming majority, giving “voice to every voter in our democracy.”
Ginsburg criticized the Court, citing subtler modern-day forms of voter discrimination, such as newly restrictive polling hours and inconvenient locations. She quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in her dissent:
“The great man who led the march from Selma to Montgomery, and there called for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, foresaw progress, even in Alabama. ‘The arc of the moral universe is long,’ he said, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
Clearly frustrated, Ginsburg leaned toward her microphone asked the rapt crowd, “What has become of the Court’s usual restraint?”
When asked whether some of the contentious Court battles could be resolved by legislation, the Justice said the current Congress was “ill-equipped” to “rise above partisan strife.” But she recounted one previous case that did just that: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
In that case, Lily Ledbetter, a female area manager, sued Goodyear under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for paying her less than the lowest-paid man in the same job. The High Court threw out the case—and the $3.8 million jury award—because Ledbetter hadn’t filed within 180 days of the violation.
Outraged, Ginsburg dissented and called on Congress to repair the damage and undo the Court’s work. Congress soon passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the first bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, giving workers a better chance to fight pay discrimination. The case further cemented Ginsburg’s influence on the court.
Law as opera
The past year wasn’t all animus and divisiveness. The philosophical battle between conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and the liberal Ginsburg proved fodder for a recent law graduate who’s writing an opera based on the opinions of each.
To the delight of the audience, Ginsburg read from the evolving libretto of “Scalia/Ginsburg,” starting with Scalia’s “Rage Aria”:
The justices are blind — how can they possibly spout this?
The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!
To which Ginsburg later responds:
You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution,
To a problem that isn’t so easy to solve.
But the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that
Like our society, it can evolve.
The petite Justice is now a towering figure on the Court. But her days may be numbered. Liberal activists are calling for her to resign so that President Obama can appoint a Democrat before his term ends. Ginsburg says she has no plans to step down, but will see what happens in a year or so.
A personal story
Before her afternoon lecture, Ginsburg visited two first-year civil procedure classes taught separately by professors Amanda Tyler and Anne Joseph O’Connell. Tyler clerked for Ginsburg in 1999, O’Connell in 2003; both were instrumental in arranging the Justice’s visit.
Tyler informed her students of the “surprise” visit just minutes before she arrived. When Ginsburg walked into class, the students burst into spontaneous applause. During an informal exchange with Ginsburg, Tyler described her clerkship as “the greatest professional privilege of my life.”
Ginsburg shared stories of law school days. Her baby girl was just 14 months old when she started at Harvard Law. Yet she found that her family offered a needed respite from the heavy concentration of law school study.
“I didn’t take it as seriously as some classmates who forgot there was a life beyond law school,” she said.
Ginsburg spent her third year at Columbia Law in New York. Although she graduated at the top of her class, not one law firm offered her a job, a “common experience” for women of her generation. Later, when asked how to respond to modern gender discrimination, she said to “take a deep breathe” and “consider yourself a kindergarten teacher” for the uneducated offender, drawing laughs from the crowd.
Ginsburg eventually won a clerkship and taught law at Rutgers and Columbia Law Schools. She helped launch the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU and served as its general counsel. During this time, Ginsburg argued—and won—many pivotal women’s rights cases before the Supreme Court. Tyler, who said she reviewed every single case, described Ginsburg’s arguments as “masterful.”
Making the world a better place
Ginsburg said federal judges at that time didn’t understand gender discrimination. So she took on the challenge: In a series of winning cases, she taught the Court that stereotyped laws hurt everyone—man, woman, and child.
In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. District Court; President Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court in 1993.
When students in class—and at the lecture—asked her for career advice, Ginsburg offered this thoughtful gem to the aspiring lawyers:
“If you survive three years of law school, you have a talent and skill that is precious, but if you use it for only personal gain—you won’t get long-term satisfaction. Do something outside of yourself that will help make things better for others not as fortunate as you,” she said.
The audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation as the Justice finished her remarks, closing the event with a resounding applause.