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July 01, 2010

Human Rights Hero: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Martha Barnett

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is without peer in her role in advancing gender equality. Her steadfast advocacy for human rights, especially for women, changed American jurisprudence.

For her “lifetime of service in pursuit of justice,” the ABA conferred its highest award—the American Bar Association Medal—on Justice Ginsburg. As Carolyn Lamm said so elegantly, “[f]or more than a half century . . . Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made vast and lasting contributions to the law and to the profession . . . as an intellectual force on our nation’s highest court . . . as a commanding advocate for gender equality . . . as a law professor [who] inspired countless young lawyers . . . [and as] a tireless servant of the law.”

Justice Ginsburg, with characteristic grace, accepted an award that she said was “spirit-lifting and appreciated beyond reckoning.” She added that “[w]ithout support, I do not believe I would hold the good job I have today” ( This nod to the important ABA role in judicial confirmations was appreciated, but we now know the truth about “How My Wife Got Her Good Job,” compliments of Martin Ginsburg, her husband and a respected tax lawyer. In remarks he prepared for a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Conference, and that were perfectly delivered by Justice Ginsburg, we learn that her “good job” and her place in history began with a tax case involving a dependent-care deduction denied a single man who was caring for his aging mother; Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue Service, 469 F.2d 466 (CA 10 1972)).

During the following decade, Ginsburg masterminded the series of cases in the U.S. Supreme Court that developed a higher standard of scrutiny for gender bias under the Fourteenth Amendment. Her cases dealt with practical issues such as preferences for men as executors in an estate administration (Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971)); assumptions that women, but not men, were dependents for purposes of military benefits (Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973)); allocations of Social Security benefits based on gender (Wiesenfeld v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975)); and laws that made jury duty for women optional (Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 357 (1979)). At least one case dealt with the not-so-weighty interests of “thirsty boys” who challenged a state law allowing girls to buy weak beer at 18, but making the boys wait until the age of 21 (Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976)). Her influence on the law in this area has never wavered (United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1976),

While Ruth Bader Ginsburg was pursuing a court strategy, others were lobbying state legislatures to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. I met Justice Ginsburg during this time. At the suggestion of her friend and my mentor, former ABA President Chesterfield Smith, I attended a meeting of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR). Gathered around the Council table were some of the living legends of the legal profession—respected professors, judges, and lawyers, including “the” Professor Ginsburg, whose work I had relied upon extensively in an article on the ERA.

It was a defining moment. I would never again think of bar association meetings as social gatherings. Ginsburg’s leadership position in IRR, as well as her involvement in the ABA Journal and the American Bar Foundation, spoke volumes about the importance of participating in the work of the organized bar and the role of lawyers in ensuring our constitutional promises.

Of course, Justice Ginsburg’s impact extends far beyond gender-related jurisprudence. Others will document it for years to come. For me and IRR, we are thankful that she has such a “good job.” Justice Ginsburg is an inspiration to generations of women and men who believe in the promise of equality. She is our hero.


Martha Barnett

Martha Barnett, a partner at the firm of Holland & Knight LLP, is a past president of the ABA and former chair of the Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities.