Dean M. Elizabeth Magill’s Opening Remarks Introducing Justice Ginsburg
Welcome. It is truly a privilege and an honor for Stanford Law School and the Constitutional Law Center to host Justice Ginsburg—and to host here on a day that, nation-wide, is a celebration of the U.S. Constitution.
Justice Ginsburg is the ideal guest to help us celebrate the US Constitution. Her life’s work has been to redeem, to make good on, the full promise of the Constitution’s protections. As she has put it, our country has progressively worked to expand who counts as the “We” in “We the People,” and Justice Ginsburg has been a key architect of that expansion.
It is not really possible, in a short introduction, to capture the breadth of Justice Ginsburg’s contribution to this country. But I am going to try. I will do that by focusing on the people in this room – we have at least three generations here, maybe four. Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work has changed the lives of every generation in this room, and in this country.
You are all probably thinking of Justice Ginsburg’s role as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, where she has sat for twenty years since President Clinton appointed her in 1993. Now among the senior justices, Justice Ginsburg often writes for the majority, or for the dissent, in important cases. But this is only a part of the story of Justice Ginsburg’s achievements.
Justice Ginsburg went to law school in the late 1950s when there were almost no women. For women in the law, this was a generation of pioneers. The story of what she experienced may sound like ancient history, but it is not. She was a woman of formidable talents, and, yet, those talents were not recognized because of the deeply embedded views about the appropriate roles and capacities of women. She endured a less-than-friendly environment in law school and a shocking lack of interest from legal employers. As she once said, when she was looking for a legal job, she had three strikes against her – she was “a Jew, a woman, and a mother—that was a bit much.” The barriers she faced would have felled an ordinary person.
But she is no ordinary person—she was a woman who would be the first in many places previously closed to women. She was indeed a pathbreaker. She became the first tenured woman at the Columbia Law School and became the first director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.
As Litigation Director of the ACLU, Justice Ginsburg devised a winning strategy to challenge laws that distinguished between men and women. She targeted laws that treated husbands and wives differently for purposes of dependent care benefits; that treated widows and widowers differently for purposes of survivors’ benefits; that treated women differently from men for purposes of jury service.
These laws, Justice Ginsburg saw, burdened both men and women by embedding stereotypes about proper roles for each gender in the law, and they were barriers to women’s full citizenship. Her strategy in these cases heavily featured men who were in caretaking roles who were disadvantaged by laws that were built around assumptions about the proper roles of women and men in the family and in the public sphere.
The strategy was brilliant. She argued six cases in the Supreme Court, winning every one where the Court reached the merits, and in the process she established the modern law of equal protection as it relates to equality between the sexes. The first case she argued, the landmark case of Frontiero v. Richardson, was decided forty years ago this year. In Frontiero, four members of the Supreme Court, for the first time, held that laws that classified people based on their gender were “inherently” suspect under the Constitution.
Justice Ginsburg transformed from scholar and advocate to judge when President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the federal appellate court in the District of Columbia in 1980. Thirteen years later she was appointed to the Supreme Court.
Justice Ginsburg has now been a judge for thirty-three years. I cannot capture her nuanced jurisprudence, but let me focus you on one aspect of her decision-making.
Many of you in the audience know Justice Ginsburg’s decisions about fundamental rights. She wrote the opinion for the Court striking down Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admission policy. She penned very well-known dissents in Bush v. Gore and the voting rights and affirmative action cases this last Term.
The Justice, however, is often described as a “judge’s judge.” She is engaged by matters of procedure, and of jurisdiction, as much as she is engaged by matters of rights. Any list of her notable cases includes cases about who can bring suit, the proper shape of class actions, and the proper role of federal courts vis-à-vis state courts.
This is an approach to judging that one might connect to Justice Ginsburg’s experience as an advocate lawyer. She has deep commitments about the meaning and promise of the law, but she has a lawyer’s caution about bold pronouncements untethered from attention to institutional competence and getting the details right. As she once said, bold pronouncements are often unstable.
It may be that pragmatic, lawyerly realism is one reason Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work has touched every generation in this room and will be lasting.
In her own generation, Justice Ginsburg was a pioneer, an example of what women were capable of doing in realms previously closed to them. And she was repeatedly victorious.
Successive generations in this room experienced a different world because of her life’s work. Women were no longer asked why they took the place of qualified men in graduate schools, as she had been. Formal barriers to women’s advancement fell away and—remarkably quickly—began to seem anachronistic, even to the generations that immediately followed her, including my own generation.
Justice, we could not be more thrilled to have you.