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September 03, 2010

Ruth Ginsburg, still showing how it's done

A great story about Justice Ginsburg that I had never heard, framed in a lovely tribute by Dahlia Lithwick at Slate:

Anyone who didn't already believe Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be fashioned of pure steel was reminded of the fact Friday night as she delivered a speech to a group of lawyers and judges that was meant to have been delivered by her husband. Martin Ginsburg had been invited to deliver his remarks at the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., but he died in late June of metastatic cancer. As Ginsburg explained Friday evening, "He had his speech all written out." And so she read it—with a handful of interpolations—in its entirety to several hundred rapt listeners.

The speech, "How the Tenth Circuit Got My Wife Her Good Job," described the only case the Ginsburgs ever worked on together—a 1972 tax case called Moritz v. Commissioner, challenging the denial of a dependent-care deduction allowed to women, widowers, or divorced men but denied to a single man who was caring for his ailing mother. According to Martin Ginsburg, as read by his widow, in the 1960s, while he worked as a New York tax lawyer, she toiled as a law professor at Rutgers. And when he entered her adjoining study in their apartment one night—"her room was bigger"—with a report on the Moritz case and the excited suggestion that she might represent the pro se litigant on appeal, his bride apparently retorted, "I don't read tax cases." She read it, and they took the case.

The Ginsburgs not only prevailed at the 10th Circuit but also obtained—as Justice Ginsburg has detailed elsewhere—the solicitor general's Exhibit E, a "printout from the Department of Defense computer" that listed, title by title, every provision of the U.S. Code "containing differentiations based upon sex-related criteria." According to the brief filed by the solicitor general urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Moritz, the 10th Circuit decision "casts a cloud of unconstitutionality upon the many federal statutes listed in Appendix E." And as Martin Ginsburg noted in his speech, that computer printout proved "a gift beyond price" in his wife's future litigation career.

The Moritz case launched Ginsburg into her association with the ACLU Women's Rights Project, and Exhibit E offered a roadmap for litigation. She scored five victories in six Supreme Court appeals, using the 14th Amendment to slowly and systematically eradicate gender discrimination in one law after another, pushing the courts to scrutinize laws that classify on the basis of gender with a standard higher than the deferential "rational basis" standard...

[Sarah] Palin and the Mama Grizzlies .. owe a debt of thanks directly to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who almost single-handedly convinced the courts and legislatures to do away with gender classifications ...

It was in Craig v. Boren [a case that involved different legal drinking ages for males and females] that Ginsburg secured the court's agreement that—in her words—the "familiar stereotype: the active boy, aggressive and assertive; the passive girl, docile and submissive" was "not fit to be written into law." The seed for Sarah Palin was sown... You can draw a straight line between Ginsburg's fight against ... seemingly harmless gender classifications that were rooted in seemingly harmless gender stereotypes and the Mama Grizzlies who roam our political landscape today...

After she finished reading her husband's charmingly funny speech, and while folks in the audience were still wiping away tears, Ginsburg sat down for a "fireside chat" with the chief justice of Canada, Beverley McLachlin, NPR's Nina Totenberg, and Robert Henry, the president of Oklahoma City University. (The woman sitting next to me whispered that the setup looked an awful lot like The View.) In response to a question about work-life balance, Ginsburg explained that in the early '70s, her son, "what I called a lively child but school psychologists called hyperactive," was forever in trouble and that she was constantly called in to his school, even though she and her husband both had full-time jobs.

"One day, I was particularly weary,"* she explained, and so when the school called, she said, "This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls, and it's his father's turn." She said calls from the school came much less frequently after that, because the school was "much less inclined to take a man away from his job." Ruth Bader Ginsburg doesn't growl and doesn't issue threats, and she rarely eats small forest dwellers. But she is still the mother of all grizzlies to me.

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