Through a mix of personal anecdotes and legal case analysis, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflected on her role in shaping the U.S. legal system at a Friday afternoon talk.
Ginsburg, who was introduced by Yale Law School Dean Robert Post, took part in an hour-long discussion with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and Yale Law School lecturer Linda Greenhouse LAW ’78 before a packed Battell Chapel. Friday’s lecture was the last of three events featuring Ginsburg that took place while she was on campus for the first Gruber Distinguished Lecture Series in Women’s Rights, organized by the Yale Law School. During the event at Battell, both Ginsburg and Greenhouse addressed topics ranging from Ginsburg’s career as an advocate of women’s rights to the challenges she has faced on the Supreme Court bench.
“The major problem that gender equality advocates faced in the 1970s was the perception that laws that differentiated between men and women did so for a benign purpose — to protect the woman,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg discussed her advocacy for women’s rights by explaining the influence of specific legal cases brought to the Supreme Court — such as the 1996 case of M.L.B. v. S.L.J., in which the majority opinion for the Court, written by Ginsburg, found that M.L.B. could not be denied an appeal of a decision stripping her of parental rights because of her inability to pay court fees. Ginsburg said the key to the M.L.B. case was eliminating the line between a civil and a criminal case.
“[We] first [compared] what was at stake for M.L.B. — loss of her parental rights — with what was at stake for a petty offender who faced not even jail time,” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg also discussed cases from her career as a lawyer, such as the 1972 Struck v. Secretary of Defense case, in which she represented a pregnant woman who was forced to either have an abortion or relinquish her career in the military. Ginsburg said that because the case was dismissed as moot, it could not serve as the first landmark case in the abortion debate, and Roe v. Wade in 1973 did so instead.
Ginsburg said her clients were “extraordinary” people because they maintained faith in the U.S. justice system.
Through her litigation style, Ginsburg could tell her clients’ stories in a compelling way, Greenhouse said, adding that Ginsburg’s clients “were never abstractions to [her].”
Greenhouse emphasized Ginsburg’s “out of the box” legal thinking, adding that she now assigns several of Ginsburg’s cases to her law students. She added that Ginsburg’s legacy does not only include advocating for gender equality — though she is often described as the “founder of constitutional women’s rights” — but rather for equality among all people.
Ginsburg also described the importance of collaborating with other justices on the Supreme Court bench. By accommodating the views of the other justices, she added, the Court’s final opinion often ends up as a compromise.
Audience members said they were impressed by Ginsburg’s ability to communicate complicated issues in an accessible manner.
Ezra Bialik LAW ’67 said he was impressed with her firm grasp of the numerous cases she mentioned during the discussion.
His wife, Joyce Bialik, said the event allowed her to learn about Ginsburg’s career before she became a Supreme Court Justice. She added that she was impressed with the breadth and depth of Ginsburg’s memory.
Victor Ojukwu LAW ’15 said that as a current law student, he was particularly excited by the event because he had recently read some of the cases that Ginsburg and Greenhouse cited.
The Gruber Foundation at Yale, which was formed in May 2011 and sponsors the Gruber Distinguished Lecture Series in Women’s Rights at Yale Law School, is dedicated to the advancement of science, support of young scientists, global justice and women’s rights.