In Conversation with Professor Nadine Strossen, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Reflects on Her Life and Legacy

At turns soft-spoken and forceful, humorous and reflective, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg captivated the NYLS community during her February 6 visit. Justice Ginsburg was the featured speaker of the 2018 Sidney Shainwald Public Interest Lecture, a series established by NYLS Trustee and pioneering women’s health advocate Sybil Shainwald ’76 in tribute to her late husband, Sidney Shainwald.

The event began with remarks by Dean Anthony W. Crowell, Sybil Shainwald ’76, Kenneth Feinberg, and Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

“I’ve never seen someone have quite the effect that Justice Ginsburg has on our students,” Dean Crowell said. “Her accomplishments and legacy don’t just rest on historic judicial impact. They live in the thousands of young people, like these students, who look up to her as their role model of what a leader in our profession and society should do.” Indeed, moments before the program began, Justice Ginsburg had stopped by a room where hundreds of students were watching a live simulcast of the event, eliciting gasps and thunderous applause.

Judge Katzmann read an excerpt from an essay Justice Ginsburg wrote when she was 13 years old, in which she contemplated the recent traumas of World War II and the Holocaust. He drew comparisons between Justice Ginsburg and Anne Frank, who had died a year earlier. “These minds that grappled with humanity and justice, minds that loved art too,” might have become lifelong friends under different circumstances, he noted.

Far from a formal lecture, the main event was an open conversation between Justice Ginsburg and Nadine Strossen, the John Marshall Harlan II Professor of Law and her longtime friend. The two began by discussing the importance of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where they both spent a considerable part of their careers.

Justice Ginsburg said she had considered affiliating with women’s rights organizations but ultimately chose the ACLU for its broad appeal.

“It came to me that if women’s rights were to be high on the human rights agenda, men had to be part of the operation too,” she said. In 1972, she would co-found the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU. The same year, Professor Strossen, then a Harvard Law School student, first heard her speak. Nearly two decades later, Professor Strossen would become the ACLU’s first female president.

During the 1970s, Justice Ginsburg played a central role in advancing gender equity through her advocacy work. She represented Stephen Wiesenfeld, a young father whose wife died in childbirth. Wiesenfeld sued after he was denied government benefits eligible to widows with young children but not to widowers. The case reached the Supreme Court, where Ginsburg prevailed in ending the practice.

“The case illustrates how gender-based lines in the law hurt everyone: They hurt women, they hurt men, and they hurt children,” Justice Ginsburg said.

She also described her research on civil procedure in Sweden during the early 1960s, where she observed that the country was already debating whether it was fair for working women to be responsible for child care and homemaking. “Sweden was ahead of the United States at that time,” she said, recounting an article in a Stockholm daily newspaper that questioned, “Why should the woman have two jobs and the man only one?”

The conversation turned to growing political divisions that in recent years have hampered the judicial nomination process.

“My hope is that we will one day get back to the way it was and the way it should be,” said Justice Ginsburg. She added, “I think it will happen, and I expect to live to see it.”

Professor Strossen noted that Justice Ginsburg calls the U.S. Supreme Court the “most collegial” place she has ever worked.

“We know that institutions can’t work as well for the people of the United States if we don’t respect and, in most cases, genuinely like each other,” Justice Ginsburg said.

“I can tell you why I regard my colleagues in some ways as family,” she said. “During my tenure, I have had two bouts with cancer. Both times, my colleagues rallied around me and made it possible to get through those trying times without missing a day in court.”

In the current era, Professor Strossen observed, many people avoid interacting with those whose ideologies differ from their own, and many feel angry, albeit justifiably, about social inequities. She asked for Justice Ginsburg’s insights on “a constructive way to be passionately engaged in combating injustice.”

Justice Ginsburg shared the example of New York University law student Shana Knizhnik, who created a blog dedicated to Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions in contentious cases such as Shelby v. Holder, a matter involving a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

“Shana was angry. I think she thought, ‘That’s not constructive. What could I do that would be positive?’” said Justice Ginsburg. The blog, Notorious R.B.G., became a phenomenon that helped propel Justice Ginsburg to social media fame.

“I think it’s amazing. I am soon to be 85, and everyone wants to take their picture with me,” she said.

Noting the potential and power of law students, Professor Strossen asked whether Justice Ginsburg first taught a course on women and the law at the behest of her female Rutgers students. The students were a key motivation, Justice Ginsburg said. Another factor was the rising number of gender-related legal challenges.

“To teach this course, I repaired to the library, and in very short order I read every federal decision that had to do with women’s rights or the lack thereof,” she said. “ … There was precious little. I think there was no more than what would be produced in six months these days.” At the time she was one of two female law professors at the school.

She emphasized that the presence of women on the U.S. Supreme Court matters tremendously to how the public sees the Court.

“I think we are what they call a critical mass. When I am asked, ‘So when will there be enough?’ I answer, ‘It’s evident: when there are nine.’” She added, “There was nothing strange about nine men for most of the court’s existence.”

Molly Mauck ’16 asked the Justice for her advice to young lawyers.

“Don’t settle for being a plumber,” Justice Ginsburg said. “That is, you have a skill, you can get a day’s pay for a day’s work. If you regard yourself as a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, you will do something that makes life in your community, in your country, a little better. So I would say, pick whatever is your passion, whether it be the environment, whether it be equality, and work together with like-minded people.”

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About the Sidney Shainwald Public Interest Lecture Series

The Sidney Shainwald Public Interest Lecture Series was established in 2004 as a tribute to Sidney Shainwald’s life and work. Past outstanding speakers have included Kenneth R. Feinberg, Esq. of The Feinberg Group, LLP; the late U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA); the Hon. Justice Stephen G. Breyer; Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; U.S. District Court Justice Jack B. Weinstein; the Hon. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Ret.); Former Secretary of State John F. Kerry; House Democratic Leader and the 60th Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and Former U.S. Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell.