In the summer of 2003, I traveled with several colleagues in the Irish American Bar Association of New York to Washington D.C. for a ceremony to be admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. I relished the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, the breakfast beforehand where Sandra Day O’Connor circled the room greeting our members, the moment the Court was called to order, the lush velvet curtains drawn back to reveal the nine justices whose decisions impact our lives in innumerable ways. I joked later that I was so close to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she could have spit on me from her vantage point on the esteemed bench. Before the ceremony, I held my six month old daughter on my hip on the steps of the Supreme Court, taking for granted my ability to practice law, to be a working mother, the respect I received from my male colleagues, and the unlimited potential of my baby daughter to make her own choices in life – a choice of career, a choice of life partner, and a choice of family. I have Justice Ginsburg to thank for much of what we had that morning and continue to have.
Today, as a firm, as a profession, and as a country, we mourn the loss of Justice Ginsburg, a brilliant jurist, a champion of justice, and a feminist icon. Notorious RBG, Dissenter in Chief, Kiki to her family, she was the most identifiable Supreme Court Justice who overcame innumerable obstacles during her life and career and left a formidable and lasting legacy on the legal landscape of the United States. There will be great discussion of the many seminal decisions in which she had a voice, but it was her career prior to her appointment to the Supreme Court that she was most proud of, and it was the victories she obtained before the very Court of which she became a member in 1993 that changed the lives of women, of everyone, in the United States for the better.
A law student who had to explain to the Dean of Harvard Law School why she was taking up a spot that should have gone to a man, she graduated top of her class from Columbia Law School in 1959 and joined a profession that was all but closed to women – no law firm in New York City would hire her. She became a professor at Rutgers Law School (and later the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School) and found herself in the 1960’s with time to devote to the women’s movement and “moving along this change.” She achieved her first Supreme Court victory in Reed v. Reed in 1971 where the Court agreed that a state could not automatically prefer men over women as executors of estates. This decision was the first time that the Supreme Court, relying on the Equal Protection Clause of Fourteenth Amendment, had struck down a state law based on gender discrimination. In her quest for winning, she strategically chose cases where men were affected to help influence male judges of the injustice of laws based on gender. In 1973 in Frontiero v. Richardson, she represented a female lieutenant in the military who was denied a dependent’s allowance for her husband which was automatically granted to the wife of any military member. The Supreme Court agreed that the law was unconstitutional in that it discriminated based on gender. In 1975 in Weinberger v. Weisenfeld, she represented Stephen Weisenfeld who lost his wife in childbirth. The Social Security Administration denied Mr. Weisenfeld benefits that would have been provided to a widow for child care. Justice Ginsburg convinced the Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional discrimination based on gender that deprived the widower of these benefits. In 1976 in Craig v. Boren, Justice Ginsburg argued in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court that an Oklahoma state law restricting the sale of certain alcohol to males between 18 and 21, but not to females in the same age category was unconstitutional. The Court agreed and determined that any law that distinguished on the basis of sex should be subjected to “intermediate scrutiny” where the state must prove the existence of specific important governmental objectives, and the law must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives. In the last case she argued as a lawyer before the Supreme Court in 1978, Duren v. Missouri, she convinced the Court that a law in Missouri allowing women automatic exemption from jury duty upon request deprived a defendant of the right to a jury of a fair cross section of the community under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. All of these victories paved the way for gender equality in American society.
Justice Ginsburg recounted a conversation she had with the late Justice Sandra Day O’Connor where Justice O’Connor posited a question – “suppose we had come of age at a time when women lawyers were welcome at the bar. You know what? Today, we would be retired partners from some large law firm, but because that route was not open to us, we had to find another way, and we both ended up in the United States Supreme Court.” Quite the accomplishment for women who had so many doors closed to them. Justice Ginsburg shared this advice to young admirers – “[F]ight for the things you care about. But do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Justice Ginsburg spent her life fighting – for the rights of others, for the words of the Constitution and its Amendments to have meat, to have meaning, for the United States to be a better and more just society.
For Mother’s Day in 2018, I had one request of my then 15 year old daughter, the one I held on the steps of the Supreme Court in 2003. Accompany me to the documentary “RBG.” On the drive over she asked what it was about. I explained it was a documentary about a Supreme Court Justice. She griped that I was bringing her to a boring movie about some old person. She emerged from the movie theatre transformed, vowing to attend law school and be a Supreme Court Justice herself one day. That aspiration, and many others she has had since then, are real because of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They are real because of her work, her dedication, her stamina, her patience, her persistence, and her “steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” Her life is now complete but her work is not done. Thanks in large part to RBG, Locks Law Firm is a better place because of the women who work here and our male colleagues who respect and support us. We will continue to heed the call of RBG to fight for those we care about – our clients and their families. RIP Ruth Bader Ginsburg.