Published June 6, 2019
"RBG has always done her best to paint her adversaries' arguments in the best light, right before she argues forcefully for the opposite position. This does not mean that every argument is worthy of respect— rather, it simply means that we must strive for intellectual honesty, even when it is difficult."
- Shana Knizhnik, attorney and co-author of Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice Ginsburg (a.k.a. RBG) is an inspiration not just for women, but for all people. Although she graduated from law school at the top of her class, she faced a monumental struggle in her career. Practicing law was a pipe dream for most women; female applicants were told that the quota for hiring women was filled, or that clients would be uncomfortable with a woman attorney.
Today, 38% of lawyers are women.
RBG is known for packing big oomph in a small package. She maintains a cool and collected image, every word carefully calculated for maximum impact. Even her style choices are deliberate - she wears a specific collar to court when she dissents. It’s a quiet, regal expression of disapproval that matches her noble air. Check it out:
Perhaps her demure appearance is why many are shocked when she so unforgivingly (yet eloquently) wields the truth like a sword. She speaks her mind both in court and in interviews, to the great delight of many.
Here are a few times RBG stepped into the ring for a TKO.
On BBC Newsnight in 2017, RBG repeated her famous response to questions of women’s equality on the Supreme Court.
Q: Since you were made a Supreme Court judge, how do you feel women’s equality and women’s rights have changed?
RBG: If you just look at the numbers… When I became a Supreme Court justice there were six women on the Senate, and now there are 20. I was the second woman on the Supreme Court, and when Justice O’Connor left, I was all alone. Now I have two colleagues, Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. People ask me, ‘but when do you think there will be enough?’ I say (laughs), well, when there are nine! And people are aghast. We’ve had nine men for most of the country’s history and no one thought that… there was anything wrong with that.
Watch the full interview here:
In an interview with CBS Sunday Morning, Justice Ginsburg discusses her three major obstacles at the start of her career.
RBG: I had three strikes against me: one, I was Jewish. Two, I was a woman. But the killer was I was a mother of a four-year-old child.
Host: You graduated first in your class. Didn’t that say something about your ability to be both a mother and the best?
RBG: It should have.
Watch the full interview here:
In an interview with PBS News Hour, Justice Ginsburg shares her experience as a woman in law school decades ago.
RBG: Every woman of my vintage knows what sexual harassment is, although we didn’t have a name for it… The attitude to sexual harassment was simply ‘Get past it. Boys will be boys.’ Well, I’ll give you just one example. I’m taking a chemistry course at Cornell, and my instructor said (because I was uncertain of my ability in that field), he said, ‘I’ll give you a practice exam.’ So he gave me a practice exam. The next day on the test, the test is the practice exam, and I knew exactly what he wanted in return.
Host: What did you do about the professor?
RBG: I went to his office and I said, ‘How dare you. How dare you do this?’ And that was the end of that.
Host: I assume you did quite well on that exam.
RBG: Well, I deliberately made two mistakes.
Watch the full clip:
In her first ever case as a Supreme Court justice, RBG came in hot on issues of gender discrimination.
Sex, like race, is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no necessary relationship to ability.
Sex, like race, has been made the basis for unjustified or at least unproved assumptions, concerning an individual’s potential to perform or to contribute to society…
These distinctions have a common effect: They help keep woman in her place, a place inferior to that occupied by men in our society.
To conclude her powerful argument, RBG quoted Sara Grimke: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
During her confirmation hearing in 1993, Justice Ginsburg was asked how she might prevent her position on the court from making her blind to the practical effects of the law.
Q: How can this nominee make sure she stays in touch with the real problems that people have out there?
RBG: One of the things that I’ve done every other year with my law clerks, more often if they are so inclined, is we visit the local jail--the DC jail, Norton Penitentiary, which is the nearest penitentiary. I do that to expose myself to those conditions and also for my law clerks. Most of them will go on to practice in large law firms, corporate business, and won’t see the law as it affects most people.
Watch part 2 of Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing:
Even future Supreme Court justices get nervous in court! In an interview with the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, RBG discusses her first appearance before the Supreme Court.
I did not dare eat anything because I was afraid I wouldn’t keep it down… I was very nervous. I had a first sentence written out, memorized. And then I looked up at the bench and thought… here are the most important judges in the country, maybe the world, and they have to listen to me. I have a captive audience. And suddenly, instead of getting nervous, I had a sense of empowerment. I knew a lot more about gender discrimination than the nine of them did.
See the full interview here:
In an interview with CNN, Justice Ginsburg gives some insight into how the Supreme Court functions, and how the courts appreciate and rely on the people’s support.
Host: We have seen quite a few attacks on the judiciary from the highest levels. Are these attacks bad for the country? Are they something that we’ve seen through history, and should be and can be tolerated? Where do you fall?
RBG: I think the independence of our federal judiciary is one of our nation’s hallmark and pride. Judges can’t defend themselves. They depend on members of the bar and the public to help preserve that institution, do the job that was intended for it--that is, to judge impartially without respect to purses. And it is distressing when the people regard the judiciary as just another political branch of government. I can say of the court on which I serve that, although the press tends to play up the 5-4 divisions, we are unanimous much more often than we divide 5-4.
Host: ...So you would agree, though, with your fellow justice… the attacks on the judiciary branch were “disheartening and demoralizing?”
RBG: They are disheartening, yes. But there are people, lawyers, who speak out in defense of an independent judiciary and point out how important that is to our system.
Watch the full interview:
In an interview with MSNBC, Justice Ginsburg critiques the current Congress and shares her vision for the future.
RBG: The Voting Rights Act was renewed by overwhelming majorities on both sides of the aisle, but the current Congress is not equipped, really, to do anything. Some day, we will go back to having the kind of legislature that we should, where members--whatever party they belong to--want to make the thing work and cooperate with each other to see that that will happen. I mean, it was that way in 1993 when I was nominated for this good job. There were only three negative votes. My hope and expectation is that we will get back to that kind of bipartisan spirit.
Host: And when the time comes, what would you like to be remembered for?
RBG: Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability, and to help repair tears in her society. ‘To do something,' as my colleague David Souter would say, ‘outside myself.’ Because I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.
Watch the full interview here (warning: technical difficulties at 2:35):
During her time on the Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has consistently been a voice for positive social change and individual rights. She is always sharing words of wisdom--these are just a few examples!
We expect to hear plenty more of these notable sound bites when Justice Ginsburg visits the University at Buffalo School of Law to speak to our students on their first day of class.
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