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October 01, 2005

Human Rights Hero: Tribute to Constance Baker Motley

by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

From the 1940s until she became Manhattan Borough President in 1965, Constance Baker Motley was engaged in the civil rights struggle as a principal member of Thurgood Marshall’s NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund team. She helped write briefs in Brown v. Board of Education and follow-on school desegregation cases. She represented James Meredith in his successful effort to gain admission to the University of Mississippi and was counsel to Charlayne Hunter-Gault in her similarly successful effort to gain admission to the University of Georgia. She argued ten cases before the United States Supreme Court, winning nine.

In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed her to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. She became chief judge of that court in 1982 and took senior status in 1986. For nearly four decades, she thrived in the art of judging. Until the last days of her life, she was at her desk in the courthouse.

Among the many cases over which she presided, in the mid-1970s, she was assigned to adjudicate Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell, a Title VII gender-discrimination class action against several of New York’s most prestigious firms. In the course of that litigation, she was asked by defense counsel to recuse herself because she was a woman and, before her elevation to the bench, a woman lawyer. She declined to do so, explaining politely but firmly:

"[I]f background or sex or race of each judge were, by definition, sufficient grounds for removal, no judge on this court could hear this case, or many others, by virtue of the fact that all of them were attorneys, of a sex, often with distinguished law firm or public service backgrounds."

Blank v. Sullivan & Cromwell , 418 F. Supp. 1, 4 (S.D.N.Y. 1975).

I count it my great good fortune to be among the legions whose lives Judge Motley touched. She taught me and others of my generation that law and courts could become positive forces in achieving our nation’s high aspiration—as carved above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court—Equal Justice under Law. May the history she helped to create prove inspiring to law students and lawyers just entering the profession. And may her achievements stand as basic building blocks for the work that remains to be done.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.