February 17, 2021 Feature

Remarks on the Occasion of the Conference of the James Kent Award to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, November 19, 1993

By Lynn Hecht Schafran

Charged with the impossible task of describing in 10 minutes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s influence on me as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend, my initial impulse was to say simply that knowing Justice Ginsburg shaped my life and sit down.

However, that seemed overly minimalist for this celebratory event, so I decided to tell you about some memorable moments in my law school and professional career that I owe to Justice Ginsburg, although some she does not even know about, and conclude by telling you how I secured an entry in that now-famous book Mommy Laughed.

You will recall that in her opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Justice Ginsburg described the book her children created when they were small to encourage her to laugh more. This story resonated strongly with me because my first one-on-one meeting with Justice Ginsburg was shaped by my perception of her as someone who did not laugh, and I was extremely apprehensive.

I met Justice Ginsburg when I was a student in her sex discrimination course in the fall of 1972, her first year teaching at Columbia. Having watched Justice Ginsburg’s confirmation hearings, you have some sense of her as a teacher. Every word she uttered was brilliant and precisely to the point. She operated on an intellectual plane that left us in awe and inspired us to strive for excellence. But in class, as at home, there was almost no laughing. My impression of Professor Ginsburg, as she then was, was that she was very severe.

The following spring, I took Professor Ginsburg’s sex discrimination seminar and had to meet with her about the case on which I would be working. She gave me materials to read in preparation, and I scheduled time on the evening before our meeting to review them. Unfortunately, I didn’t schedule time for a gall bladder attack, and as the evening wore on, it was clear that I was not going to be prepared. The thought of meeting with this awesome intellect unprepared turned my knees to water, but I went. As in class, we got down to business immediately, but as I had barely skimmed the material, and was feeling queasy besides, it was all going right over my head.

With great trepidation, I interrupted her. I explained that I had been unable to prepare because I was ill, that I was in her office on willpower alone (I remember that those were my exact words), and that I simply could not follow what she wanted of me. Given the severe image that I had of her from class, I waited for her stern rebuke, but, of course, it never came. She could not have been kinder. She went back to the beginning, and, slowly, in words that even I could understand that day, explained what had to be done.

During Justice Ginsburg’s hearings, as I responded to reporters’ questions and read the reams of press, I thought of this experience and others that have followed. Because I did not really know Justice Ginsburg before that first meeting, I, like many others since, misread her reserve as coldness and had no sense of her enormous humanity and compassion.

Her humanity was again apparent in an event that had particular meaning for me—the party she gave for Stephen Wiesenfeld (as in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975))—and all of us who had worked on his case. Here was a real, live plaintiff, a species of human being I was not always sure existed while I was studying at Columbia Law School. In many classes, and with my civil procedure teaching fellow, I saw complex human interactions reduced to abstraction, procedure pursued for its own sake, and disdain for the practicalities of how law is actually practiced. This was never true in Justice Ginsburg’s class. As Professor Jane Ginsburg said in conferring an award on her mother at Harvard in October 1993, “Among the many lessons she imparted . . . was the counsel to keep sight of the individuals whose plight gives rise to the question of principle.” I had gone to law school to be a civil rights lawyer, and the sense of connection to that purpose which Justice Ginsburg’s party for Stephen Wiesenfeld provided was a wonderful reinforcement of that goal.

In law school, Justice Ginsburg introduced me to an issue which has afforded me many memorable moments, demanded vastly more time than I ever anticipated, evoked incredible passion, and which I have come to call the issue that will not die. No, I am not talking about abortion; I am talking about ending discrimination at so-called “private” clubs.

In 1973, Justice Ginsburg asked me to work on a statute the American Civil Liberties Union was developing that would prohibit discrimination in “private” business and professional clubs. She took me with her to a meeting of the New York City Chapter of the Jaycees, where she spoke on why women needed to be full-fledged Jaycees rather than being confined to the ladies’ auxiliary as Jayceettes.

Since then, I have worked on this issue in myriad contexts, ranging from requiring nominees to the federal bench to withdraw from discriminatory clubs to suing the Jaycees to, just last month, taking the New York State Democratic Committee to task for honoring Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala at a New York City club that bars women from membership.

In the course of these endeavors, I have repeatedly quoted from a memorandum Justice Ginsburg wrote to her colleagues in the American Law Institute in 1979 when they scheduled a meeting at a New York club that did not admit women. Given her long-standing interest in this issue, I was delighted to learn that when the James Kent Award is conferred on Justice Ginsburg this afternoon, it will be at the University Club. This is a club that not only excluded women from membership until legislation and litigation forced it to change in 1987, but that had a legend stenciled in gold on the pillar to the left of its entrance directing all women who entered away from the lobby where men congregated and into the Ladies’ Lounge.

I also owe to Justice Ginsburg my clerkship with the judge for whom she clerked, the late Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the Southern District of New York, but there was a memorable moment in my hiring interview when I thought it was all over. The first question Judge Palmieri asked me was, “How old is your baby?” I was shocked. This was the judge who hired Ruth Ginsburg when—despite her stunning academic credentials—the fact that she was a married woman with a child, and Jewish to boot, meant that no one else in the Second Circuit would consider her.

Why did he care how old my child was? Should I tell him the question violated Title VII? Did I care more about getting the job or raising his consciousness? Getting the job won out, and I later realized that Judge Palmieri asked me that question solely because he was devoted to his own children and wanted to be sure that I did not take a job that would deny me the pleasure of being with mine. He was also devoted to Justice Ginsburg, for whom he had the highest regard. I know that one of the most memorable moments of his life, and I believe of Justice Ginsburg’s as well, was when they sat together on an appellate panel. I wish that he had lived to rejoice with us in her appointment to the Supreme Court.

When I was job hunting during my clerkship, there was no public interest money available for the kind of work I wanted to do, and on the advice of people I trusted, especially Justice Ginsburg, that I should go to a good firm for a year or two, I joined the litigation department of a large New York law firm.

During my second year at this firm, Justice Ginsburg invited me to work with her on a Supreme Court case involving sex discrimination in high schools, an issue on which I had worked with her at Columbia. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. What could be a greater compliment than to be asked to work on a case by Ruth Ginsburg! However, one of the partners involved in evaluating my work did not share my joy. At my 18-month review, he began the review by berating me loudly. “I know what you’ve been doing,” he yelled. “I know you’ve been working on a pro bono case. If you thought you could hide it from me, you were sadly mistaken.”

The assignment partner who authorized my working on this case kept interjecting that I had his permission, but to no avail. My antagonist kept screaming about my spending time on a pro bono matter, ending with “. . . and if you think that’s what the law is all about, you don’t belong here.”

This was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was furious enough at this man to throttle him, but at the same time I had to admit that he was right. I did think that that was what the law was all about, and I didn’t belong there.

When I left this firm, I wondered how Justice Ginsburg could ever have encouraged me to work in this type of practice. But in later years, I realized that she had given me a secret weapon. Whenever I find myself with lawyers and judges who think, based on the work I do now, that I must be a fool or incompetent or both, I work into the conversation that I was a litigator with this major firm and clerked in the Southern District. This causes serious cognitive dissonance because these are credentials the establishment cannot so easily dismiss.

I said I would conclude by telling you how I earned an entry in the Mommy Laughed book. I close with this little story because I know it speaks for all of us here today. In 1980, when Justice Ginsburg was preparing to be sworn in as a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, she told me she had a problem. The beautiful courtroom where judges usually held such ceremonies was too small for the number of people she wanted to invite, and the room that was large enough was the jury room, decorated with such unattractive accessories as soda machines.

I told her that I had the answer to her problem, and my solution made her laugh. I said, “Why not just hold the swearing-in on the Washington Mall and let all the women who are grateful to you attend?”

Justice Ginsburg, for all that you have done for all of us, I thank you again.


Lynn Hecht Schafran


Lynn Hecht Schafran is legal director of Legal Momentum, the Women’s Legal Defense Fund, and director of its National Judicial Education Program. She was a student of Justice Ginsburg’s in the justice’s first year of teaching at Columbia Law School and worked with her on subsequent cases and issues.