January 07, 2021 Feature

Reflections on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A friend and former student offers a tribute to the late Justice.

Hon. M. Margaret McKeown

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I was privileged to know Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a friend, role model, and icon for equality. In my final year at Georgetown Law School, I had the fortune to “meet” her when she was a professor at Columbia Law School, and she graciously answered my plea for materials on sex discrimination. That willingness to reach out became her hallmark with so many aspiring lawyers. She did not lean in for herself—she leaned down to lift up others. Her generous gesture blossomed into a wonderful friendship over the years, through teaching together in France, sharing many meals and family stories, engaging in international rule of law endeavors, and sharing a love of music.

I love that her diminutive stature belied a fearsome intellect. She loved the law and was an incredible role model for me as a judge. She took care with every word. Her writing was powerful, but never mean, caustic, or snarky, even in her nearly 150 dissents. In those dissents, Justice Ginsburg appealed to the “intelligence of a future day,” but situated those views within her respected role on the Court. “The most effective dissent,” she wrote, “spells out differences without jeopardizing collegiality or public respect for and confidence in the judiciary.”

Justice Ginsburg brought real world experience and humanity to her opinions. In Safford Unified School District v. Redding, she understood a young girl’s humiliation over being strip searched and, as a victim of discrimination herself, in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, the Justice recognized Lily Ledbetter’s dilemma in suing her employer.

Both as a lawyer before the Court and as a Justice on the Court, she was an incrementalist, but one who started a revolution. She didn’t try to rewrite history in one fell swoop; she recognized the importance of building blocks. She believed that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

Image by Mary Woodin.

Image by Mary Woodin.

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