Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59
Over the course of five decades, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has cracked long-solid glass ceilings as a civil rights advocate, a tenured Law School professor, and the second woman to serve on the country's highest court
Who has been your greatest inspiration?
My greatest supporter was first my mother, who sadly died when I was 17. For
most of my adult life, my dear husband, who has been the best life companion
anyone could have.
How do you define success?
The satisfaction of knowing that you have done the best you could with whatever talents God gave you. And that you have used those talents not simply to be paid for the work you do, but to contribute to repairing the tears in your society, in your local community, your state, your nation, your world.
Why did you go to law school?
I was in college during the heyday of Senator Joseph McCarthy, when there was a huge Red Scare in the country. We were straying from our most cherished value about people’s right to speak their mind without fear of repression by their government. I came to appreciate that there were valiant lawyers representing people called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Senate Internal Security Committee. Those lawyers reminded the country, through their representation and in their writings, what our values and aspirations as a nation were. They urged that we had made a very wrong turn. Their example indicated to me that a lawyer could both earn a living and help make things a little better through his or her own efforts.
Who is your favorite lawyer of all time?
It would be hard to pick one. But I will say that among my favorite lawyers of all time is Louis D. Brandeis. In his years in practice he was known as “The People’s Lawyer.” He spent as much time on pro bono work as he did on paying clients. Brandeis even reimbursed his firm for the hours he spent on pro bono work.
Finish this sentence: I wouldn’t be caught dead without . . .
The Constitution of the United States, which I carry with me in my pocket wherever I go, all over the world. I have it with me at this very moment in that tote bag [gesturing toward bag]. The United States Constitution is the oldest written constitution still in force in the world. We are not that old, as far as nations go. But we do have the oldest fundamental instrument of government. And we treat it not simply as aspirational law. We treat it as law to be applied. That’s special. Many countries have constitutions with all kinds of guarantees that are not enforced and not respected by the government. We have a well-over-200-year tradition of treating the Constitution as governing law—the law trumping all others. Something else I like about our Constitution: We present it warts and all. The 1787 draft included the fugitive slave clause and preserved the slave trade until 1808. We keep those in publications of the Constitution, but with a footnote that says “repealed by . . .”
Thing for which you are most thankful?
I’d have to say it’s the amazing luck I have had in my life. So many times, what seemed to be ill fortune turned out to be, instead, a stroke of luck. Justice O’Connor and I tell the same story: When we got out of law school, no legal employer would hire us for a lawyer’s work. Suppose there had been no discrimination. Reflecting on our careers, we speculated: Suppose we had gotten a job with a major law firm. What would we be today? We would be retired partners from a large law firm. But because we had to cut a different path for ourselves, we ended up as judges serving on the highest court in the land.
I was teaching at Columbia when Jimmy Carter made it his mission to change the complexion of the federal judiciary by appointing women and minority members to the bench in numbers. I was certainly a beneficiary of that initiative. I was also a beneficiary of affirmative action, which took on steam in President Nixon’s first term. His Department of Health, Education, and Welfare monitored the compliance of colleges and universities with the clause in their government contracts which both prohibited discrimination and mandated affirmative action to include well-qualified people who had been excluded far too long. That’s how I came to be the first tenured woman at the Law School.