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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.

Hard work and attention to detail were hallmarks of her commitment to the law. I recall one time when we were teaching together and she invited my family to her hotel for an afternoon of fun. That meant that her husband Marty played ping pong and went swimming with my family while she sat under a big umbrella, sporting an almost bigger hat, writing a law review article. But at the end of the day, she quickly pivoted to a lively dinner. She was serious, though she was also playful, as reflected in her embrace of the Notorious RBG phenomenon. Through her acceptance of becoming a meme, she made the Court accessible to the public.

Early this year, I had the privilege of interviewing Justice Ginsburg at a centennial celebration of the Nineteenth Amendment. She related that her mother marched for suffrage, and Justice Ginsburg saw the amendment as “the first step toward equal-citizenship stature for women.” When I asked her to contribute to the ABA’s Nineteenth Amendment Centennial Cookbook, she candidly admitted to one of the few things where she did not excel—cooking. Marty was the chef; so she graciously offered up two of his recipes. (You can download the cookbook.)

As a young Girl Scout recently told me, “I wish we could dissent from someone’s death.” Indeed, I dissent. Justice Ginsburg forever changed the landscape of gender equality. She had a stunning intellect, warm heart, and playful spirit—and a moral compass that was all in for justice and equality. She left us an incredible legacy, and it now falls to the next generation to keep that spirit alive.

Hon. M. Margaret McKeown

The author is a circuit judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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