Ruth Bader Ginsburg never expected to become a role model for aspiring women lawyers. She was just pursuing her passion for the law – one that led all the way to the nation’s highest court.
But, as she recounted during her recent, riveting appearance at Buffalo’s Kleinhans Music Hall, the world was changing as her career took root. And now, at a time when three women sit on the U.S. Supreme Court and 54 percent of UB School of Law’s Class of 2021 are women, she is able to acknowledge her place in helping to make law an equal-opportunity calling.
“Nowadays it’s exhilarating to see women on law school faculties, as deans ... and as law students,” Justice Ginsburg said before nearly 2,400 attendees in the main hall. “The closed-door era is indeed over. Yes, things are not perfect, but how long a way we have traveled.”
Her Kleinhans appearance followed a full day of activities at UB, where she was awarded a SUNY Honorary Degree and spoke to law students, and it came on the heels of the Court’s announcement that she had just completed treatment for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer. Yet the 86-year-old justice was determined to fulfill her promise to her longtime friend, Wayne Wisbaum, a prominent Buffalo attorney who passed away last December. “When I promised him I would come, I did not know that this day would be proceeded by three weeks of daily radiation,” she explained. “But I said, 'I will not cancel Buffalo.'”
The Justice was razor sharp during her conversation with Dean Aviva Abramovsky, flashing her trademark wit and citing fact patterns and historical dates with ease.
Throughout, she recognized that her long career in the law has encompassed a period of epic historical change. Born just 13 years after women gained the right to vote, she came of age in the 1950s, when many professions were closed to women by tradition or de jure. Asked about women in the law who inspired her early on, she said that at the time she simply didn’t know of any. “Women were barely there. They were three percent of the bar across the country. They were, perhaps, one percent of the judges nationwide,” she said. “The law was not a friendly field for women in those days, so it wasn’t until years later that I met, or heard about women, who would have been inspirational if I had known of them earlier.”
At Harvard Law, where nine women joined 500 men in the 1L class, the dean invited the women to a luncheon where he asked why they were taking a seat from a deserving male student. She gave him an answer that she did not believe: “Dean [Erwin] Griswold, my husband is in the second-year class, and I think it is very important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.”
When she worried about starting law school with an infant daughter to care for, she took heart from her father-in-law’s advice: “‘If you decide not to go to law school, no one will think less of you. It’s an o.k. choice to make. But if you really want to be a lawyer, you will pick yourself up and you will find a way.’ And that advice I’ve used at several turns in my life.”
She later transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated in 1959, first in her class, yet she did not have a single job offer from a law firm for a permanent job. After a U.S. District Court clerkship, she taught at Rutgers University School of Law and Columbia Law School, and represented the American Civil Liberties Union in a number of important civil rights cases before her accession to the bench – “It was the busiest and most satisfying time of my life up till then. And I saw that there really was a possibility to move the Court in the direction of recognizing the equal citizenship stature of women,” she said.
Meanwhile, the feminist movement was changing social mores. Justice Ginsburg pointed to her own family experience as an example: When her daughter, born in 1955, was in grade school, “I was one of the few working moms in her grade school class. My son was born ten years later in 1965, and it wasn’t at all unusual then to have a two-earner family. So society had changed and eventually the Court caught up with that change.”
In the profession, she said, “It really wasn’t until 1972 that the big breakthrough came, and it came about in part because law schools across the country were worried about losing male students to the Vietnam draft. So they over-admitted women. And then, when the women were there, other women were encouraged.”
Asked about her relationship with Sandra Day O’Connor when Justice Ginsburg first joined the Court, Justice Ginsburg said it was “the closest that I came to having a big sister. She told me what she thought I needed to know to navigate those first few weeks. ...At the end of the first sitting, I had my first assignment...Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist assigned me to a miserable ERISA case. She said, in her usual way, ‘Ruth, just do it.’
“She was a brave and wonderful woman...She gave me great advice when I had colorectal cancer: ‘Schedule the chemo for Friday, that way you can get over it on the weekend and be back in court on Monday morning.’ She also said, ‘You’re going to get dozens of letters. Don’t even try to respond, just concentrate on the Court’s business and give it your all.’ ”
And about her unlikely friendship with another Court colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, Justice Ginsburg said: “Although our approach to reading legal texts was certainly different, we both cared a lot about good writing, about not only getting it right, but keeping it clear and concise… Sometimes I would say to him, ‘You know, this opinion is so over the top, you would be more persuasive if you toned it down.’ He never took that advice.”
She recognizes that lawyers, both men and women, face great pressures in balancing work and family life. “It is really unfortunate if, in your zeal to work all kinds of hours, you miss out on the joys as well as the burdens of raising the next generation,” the Justice said. With her husband, a tax lawyer, “we made an agreement that unless something urgent came up, we would have dinner together as a family.” And she told of the day she got yet another call from her son’s school – she called him “lively” – and she was exhausted from a difficult case. “I said to the caller, ‘This child has two parents, please alternate calls. And it’s his father’s turn.’ ”
Justice Ginsburg’s appearance in Buffalo was sponsored by the University at Buffalo School of Law and the UB Law Alumni Association, the Bar Association of Erie County, the Minority Bar Association of Western New York, and the Western New York Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has long been known for her wry sense of humor and pithy expressions. (She carried a black tote bag on stage with her catchphrase, “I Dissent.”) And throughout the evening, the Justice showed that she can still turn a phrase. Some examples:
On the 1873 case, Bradwell v. Illinois, in which Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley opined “The paramount destiny and mission of women are to fulfill the noble and benign offices of wife and mother. This is the law of the Creator”: “One wonders how Justice Bradley communed with the Creator.”
On the current process for nominating and confirming federal judges: “In recent years, and it’s on both sides of the aisle, it’s falling apart. So people who are highly qualified including my current chief, got several negative votes…having nothing to do with their qualifications for being a fine jurist. I hope one day there will be people who care about our country, both Democrats and Republicans, who will come together and say, enough of this dysfunctional legislature.”
On the news that William Rehnquist had proposed to Sandra Day in law school: “By then she had met John O’Connor, whom she preferred.”
On the years when she was the lone woman on the Supreme Court: “When I was the lone woman, it projected the wrong image of the Court. We’d come out on the bench and there were eight rather well-fed men, and then there was this rather thin woman.”
On an early encounter with Justice Antonin Scalia: “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I was utterly charmed by the way he said it.”
On gerrymandering politicians: “It’s supposed to be that the voters choose their representatives, and here are representatives drawing district lines so that they are choosing their voters. Something is wrong with our political system.”
On the 2014 case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which she wrote a strongly worded dissent: “You can practice your religion and that’s fine, but if what you’re doing is harmful to people who do not share your religious views, then that’s off limits.”
On appointing women to the Court: “People ask, when will there be enough? The obvious answer is, when there are nine.”