The recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, caused me to take a step back and reflect on her career as a mammoth figure in American Jurisprudence.
I have known her as a member of the Supreme Court since I was a teenager. Her career as an appellate judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C. began when I was six months old. I was less familiar with her career as a lawyer and with her death came the opportunity to remember and study her amazing career as a lawyer, an appellate judge, and justice.
Ginsburg’s Commitment to Gender Equality
In her career as a lawyer and advocate, Ginsburg probably did more for gender equality under the law than any other single person in American history. She fought institutional inequality with determination, great legal skill, and most amazingly to me, courage, personal resilience, and strength.
I cannot imagine the strength it took to make it your life’s work to get up daily to change both a legal and social structure that was stacked against you. She did it. Her fight for gender equality as a practicing lawyer culminated in the 1970s when she argued six cases in front of the Supreme Court, winning five of them. All were gender equality cases.
Maybe it was her plan all along to fight for gender equality. Or, maybe events in her own life inspired her to do so. One story that I have heard on TV and read multiple times highlights the inequality she herself faced and how amazing her determination was.
In 1956, Ginsburg was one of nine women out of a class of about 500 men enrolled at Harvard Law School, attending classes while also caring for her newborn baby and husband, who was being treated for cancer. Allegedly, the dean of Harvard Law invited all nine female law students to his home for dinner and asked them collectively what they were doing at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?
If that were not personally trying enough, Ginsburg moved to New York during law school when her husband took a job there and transferred to Columbia Law School. Despite graduating first in her class from Columbia, she reportedly had difficulty finding employment because of her gender.
Amid this systemic oppression, Ginsburg persevered and had one of the most incredible legal careers in history. It is personally inspiring and motivating, in these difficult times, to reflect on the personal and professional obstacles that this great woman overcame while making the country a better place. That is what is so amazing to me. She did not just overcome the odds and become greatly successful personally, which she did. She became personally successful using her career to make the law better for everyone.
She made the law work for those women who were previously treated unequally under the law. She continued to do so as an appellate judge and on the Supreme Court.
A Singularly Inspiring Legal Career
I encourage everyone to spend a few moments reading about her career. From her spirited dissents as a Justice on the Supreme Court to her artful and skillful oral arguments in front of that court while a lawyer in the 1970s, it is all inspiring.
But for me personally, what is the most impactful is thinking about the unequal, oppressive landscape under which she accomplished all of it. I wish I could say if in her shoes, I would have the same personal determination and passion to wake up each day and fight that fight. I think I know the answer, and that is why there is and will be only one Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I attempt to relate this to my own legal career. Although it is a different type of struggle, it likewise takes a lot of courage and intestinal fortitude to be a whistleblower. To come forward at great personal and professional risk. To fight against institutional behavior that is both wrong and is extremely difficult to stop and to prevent. As a whistleblower lawyer, I see it daily. To represent these folks is greatly rewarding, but it is also extremely challenging.
The False Claims Act is a remarkable legislative tool to fight government fraud. But those on the other side who want to see the statute stripped of its power have a great deal more resources than individual whistleblowers and those who advocate for them. It can, at times, be a frustrating and demoralizing realization that the fight does not seem fair.
But I hope on those days when in my own career, the odds don’t seem great and a loss seems imminent, that I can summon a shred of the courage RBG had to persevere.
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg.