Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States and recognized as being a driving force in advancing women’s rights, almost downplayed her importance while speaking at the University of Notre Dame Monday.
“I was very fortunate to be alive as a lawyer when change was occurring in society,” she said.
Ginsburg, known in popular culture as the Notorious R.B.G., appeared in South Bend Monday and spent two hours talking about her life and her work on the Supreme Court before a very appreciative audience of 7,500. Judge Ann Claire Williams of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals moderated the discussion that included a few questions from students and a performance of the habanera with special lyrics to honor Ginsburg from the opera “Carmen” by Giacomo Puccini.
The crowd was lining up around the Joyce Center where Ginsburg appeared at least an hour and a half before the evening event was scheduled to begin. Once inside, they filled the chairs set up on the main floor of the Purcell Pavilion and flowed into the bleachers.
When Ginsburg, wearing a gray jacket and black pants, walked onto the stage, the cheer from the audience sounded like something that would greet a rock star at the beginning of a concert. Undoubtedly the roar was in stark contrast to the silence and closed doors that marked the start of her legal career.
The diminutive Brooklyn native did not get one job offer after she graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, despite being at the top of her class. Her law professor finally cajoled Judge Edmund Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York into taking her on as a law clerk.
After her clerkship ended, she first joined the faculty of Rutgers Law School in 1963 and then moved to her alma mater, becoming the first woman to be granted tenure at Columbia Law School.
While teaching, she got involved in separate legal disputes between female employees and the universities over equal pay and treatment. Then she volunteered to write a brief for the landmark case, Reed v. Reed, 4040 U.S. 71, (1971), which is credited with pushing the Supreme Court to find that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender.
A year after that decision, Notre Dame officially became a coeducational college. Also, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Through the 1970s, she argued a series of pivotal cases before the Supreme Court that helped advance equality for women.
At Notre Dame, Ginsburg talked about the importance of having women on the bench. She recalled the case, Safford Unified School District, et al. v. Redding, where the Supreme Court ruled in 2009 that a 13-year-old girl had her civil rights violated when school officials stripped searched her after finding two Advil pills in her possession.
Ginsburg said some of the male justices noted boys undress in front of each in locker rooms so they did not comprehend that the situation would be different for a girl. She explained that 13-year-old females have certain sensitivities and she encouraged them to consider how they would feel if their daughters were stripped searched. They then understood the experience was devastating for the teenage girl and ruled in favor of the young woman.
“The court is so much richer in experience because of the diversity of our backgrounds than it would be if we were all cut from the same mold,” Ginsburg said. “... So what we bring to the table are combined knowledge and life experience.”
Yet, Ginsburg maintained the courts do not take society in new directions. Rather, the judicial branch is reactionary, usually trailing behind where the people are going. And that is why she sees her success in the court in pushing back against gender discrimination as the direct result of women asserting themselves more.
“Courts don’t initiate change, people do,” she said. “… If people don’t care, the court will not save this society. If people do care, then the court may rethink some of its old decisions as it did in Brown v. Board of Education and put its stamp of approval on the side of change.”
In response to a question from Notre Dame law student Conor Maloney about how her faith has influenced her career, Ginsburg linked her personal traits to her Jewish upbringing. She noted Jews are sometimes called “people of the book” because they prize education and they are described as having an affinity to argue.
“I think the Jewish heritage is part of who I am,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I love learning, I love trying to explain my position. I really enjoy a good engagement with a colleague who has a different point of view.”
At the conclusion of the event, Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins made Ginsburg an honorary member of the Fighting Irish women’s basketball team. He presented her with a white jersey emblazoned with her name and the number one.
Ginsburg was scheduled to talk to law students from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Patrick F. McCartan courtroom. Jennifer Mason, associate professor of law and director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights, moderated the discussion.