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January 06, 2021 Feature

Lessons from My Grandmother

Justice Ginburg's granddaughter writes about her life and influence.

Clara Spera

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My grandmother, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, did not attend law school expecting to become an “impact” litigator. (The term “impact litigation” may not have even existed at the time she set off for law school, in 1956.) She did not start representing clients in gender equality cases—or any cases—until a decade after she graduated from Columbia Law School. While my grandmother was an undergraduate at Cornell, Professor Robert Cushman, who had suffered harassment during the McCarthy period, taught her that the law could furnish a means to resist oppression. She did not translate that insight immediately into a career path. But the work that she, and others, later did made it possible for me to envision a career as a litigator, even well before I started law school.

Image by Mary Woodin.

Image by Mary Woodin.

From a young age, I knew that I wanted to be involved with issues of justice and fairness. For a long time, though, I was convinced that the correct institution to effect the kinds of changes I wanted to see was the legislative branch. I dreamed of one day being a senator or representative, authoring sweeping legislation that would correct gross inequalities.

As I came to understand my grandmother’s career better, I began to see another way. As has been noted by commentators and scholars, my grandmother’s strategy for effecting social change emerged through a very carefully plotted-out sequence of cases. As she famously stated, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” But the risk of back-pedaling remains. Indeed, although she argued and won landmark gender equality cases in the 1970s, the fight for equality and justice for all continues today. I am a fellowship attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, where we strive every day to preserve those victories.

One may wonder why she turned to the courts rather than the legislative branch to fight for gender equality. I believe there are two answers. First, a basic structural reason: at the Supreme Court, she had to convince only five of nine skeptical men (even if doing so required her to act as a “kindergarten teacher”), rather than a legislative chamber full of them. Second, litigation allowed her to show off her most celebrated skill: writing. I have learned in my short career as a litigator that while oral advocacy is important to civil litigation, a case rises and falls on the briefing. She shone brightest in her writing.

My grandmother was an exacting and untiring editor. I regularly witnessed her working late into the night, revising her clerks’ drafts. My mother assures me it was the same with her co-counsels’ drafts. She strove for simplicity, clarity, and brevity: she would tell her clerks at the beginning of their clerkship year, and me, when I started law school, that one wasn’t done writing when there was nothing left to add but, rather, when there was nothing left to take out. She classified advocates as “simplifiers” or “complicators,” and had little use for the latter. Both as a litigator and as a Justice, she brought her mastery of research and rhetoric to make the Court appreciate the human drama that underlay the question of statutory interpretation or application of precedent that a case presented.

She taught me not to stop working until I was satisfied; that what I had done was never good enough until it was as good as I could make it. It is an exacting standard. But she expected herself, and those she worked with, to meet it. That precept applies to any endeavor, but she honed it first as a litigator. I hope to live up to her example.

Clara Spera

The author is an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the American Civil Liberty Union’s Reproductive Freedom Project, and the granddaughter of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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