To borrow part of an old saying, Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned lemons into a legacy that, over more than 50 years as a lawyer and jurist, changed the way the world is now for all Americans, particularly women.
One of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class of 500, she was told by the dean that she was taking up a place that “should go to a man.” Ginsburg would later transfer to Columbia and graduate tied for number one in her law school class. Despite her qualifications, law firms didn’t hire women in 1959, nor could she get an interview for a Supreme Court clerkship despite sterling recommendations from her professors.
Undaunted, Ginsburg eventually turned these lemons of personal discrimination into a legal crusade as a lawyer and co-founder of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, winning five of six landmark cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. The key for Ginsburg: Convincing male justices that the 14th Amendment protections of equality and fairness extended to gender as well as race and ethnicity. As she would say later in life, she did not fight for “women’s rights,” but for “the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.”
Once appointed to the Supreme Court in 1991 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg continued her fight “on behalf of women who were discriminated against, people of color whose votes were suppressed, employees abused by their bosses, gay and lesbian people punished by bigots, and defendants denied due process and equal protection,” wrote Andrew Cohen for the Brennan Center for Justice. And even though she was often in the minority, she continued to rack up victories for all the underdogs in life – often speaking out in stirring dissent against a conservative majority on the court – right up until her recent death.
Ginsburg’s career and relentless pursuit of justice highlights so clearly why fair courts matter … and the fundamental rights that are at stake in the battle for fair courts. Yet here we go once again as politicians in Washington, D.C., including Iowa’s own U.S. senators, prepare to politicize another Supreme Court appointment. Allowing naked partisanship to push the courts to one extreme or another ultimately threatens the rights of individual citizens without the money or political clout to take on powerful special interests.
Ginsburg always saw lightness in life, in the people around her, and in the future of our nation, regardless of the challenges she faced personally. “I do think that I was born under a very bright star,” she once said in an interview.
We’re a better nation because she followed that bright star in the pursuit of fairness on the highest court of the land, and we’d be a better nation still if our leaders followed it, too.
The Justice Not Politics Team
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