Pictured Ruth Bader Ginsburg (left) and panelists Judge Ann Williams; corporate litigator Tina Tchen; and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Photos by Marie-Jo Proulx
To celebrate its twentieth anniversary, the Chicago Foundation for Women ( CFW ) this year created the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award and invited the Supreme Court Justice to come inaugurate the prize in person. Long considered a pioneer in women's rights and admired by many for her intellect and grace, Ginsburg accepted and also agreed to participate in a panel discussion. Her Dec. 10 visit at the Harold Washington Library's Winter Garden sold out almost instantly.
In presenting the award, Lois Lipton, CFW board chair, outlined a number of Ginsburg's personal accomplishments and legal victories on behalf of women. As a young Jewish mother and one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg faced a daunting environment. Nevertheless, she earned top grades and obtained a coveted position at the law review. When she and her husband moved to New York, she completed her degree at Columbia, where she again worked for the law review, becoming the first woman ever to do so at two institutions.
In 1962, Ginsburg joined the law faculty at Rutgers University and fought for maternity leave rights for schoolteachers in New Jersey. Named the first director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project in 1972, she continued her work as a staunch advocate for gender equality, eventually arguing six such cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ginsburg was nominated to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by President Carter in 1980, where she served until 1994, when President Clinton tapped her for the country's highest court. Three years later, she wrote the majority opinion in the landmark Virginia Military Institute case, declaring the college's 150-year old male-only admissions policy unconstitutional.
Despite a long list of distinguished achievements, in accepting the CFW award, Ginsburg spoke very little of her own career and views, preferring instead to lavish praise on her retiring colleague, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. As the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, O'Connor was an obvious role-model, but Ginsburg said she also proved a supportive mentor with boundless energy and impressive diplomatic skills when in chambers. Recounting a personal anecdote, Ginsburg told of how after writing her first opinion for the court, she received a hand-written note from O'Connor congratulating her sound reasoning, even though O'Connor was herself in the dissenting minority.
Thanking the audience for their patience, Ginsburg finished her address to a standing ovation and unceremoniously regained her seat among the other panelists. Attorney Fay Clayton then introduced the participants. Clayton has herself argued before the Supreme Court, winning a unanimous decision for NOW in a case against Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion protesters who were threatening patients and blocking access to clinics. The 1998 verdict resulted in a nationwide injunction prohibiting such interference, which still holds today but has been repeatedly challenged. In fact, Justice Ginsburg and her colleagues heard oral arguments on the matter earlier this month.
Also on the panel were Judge Ann Williams, the first African-American woman to be appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit; corporate litigator Tina Tchen, a veteran of the Equal Rights Amendment ( ERA ) battle; and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who successfully argued the so-called 'dog sniffing' Fourth Amendment case before the Supreme Court in January of this year. In a conciliatory tone that had everyone chuckling, Clayton announced that the fact that Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion in the case would not be discussed.
Williams began the conversation by asking Ginsburg where she had looked for inspiration in deciding to embark on a legal career. 'First, growing up, Nancy Drew,' she replied with a smile, prompting a burst of laughter and clapping from the crowd. She then recalled how employment discrimination was keeping many women out of the work force and almost all of them from occupying influential positions on the national scene. But, she went on, in the late 1970s President Carter 'changed the landscape with appointments.' Indeed, while he never got to fill a Supreme Court vacancy, in the four years he was in office Carter elevated 11 women to District Court positions and sent 25 others to the Circuit Courts. Those promotions opened doors onto new possibilities, Ginsburg explained.
Tchen then asked Ginsburg to talk about how she had experienced feminism. In a detailed answer, Ginsburg spoke of her students at Rutgers who were asking for courses on women and the law; the large number of complaints by women coming to the ACLU's attention; the declaration of International Women's Year ( 1975 ) by the United Nations; and reading The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir's enlightening book on the status of women.
Referring to the 1972 passage of the ERA by Congress and its subsequent rejection by individual state legislatures, Ginsburg stated that she remains a supporter of the amendment, which was originally introduced in 1923. However, she expressed dismay that such an additional provision should even be required in order to ensure gender equality. Quoting the Fourteenth Amendment's first words, 'All persons,' she commented: 'You would think that would be enough.'
Looking to the future, Madigan inquired how it would feel to be the only woman on the Supreme Court for the first time. While she acknowledged that she would miss the camaraderie, Ginsburg rejoiced at the thought that many more women attorneys now argue before the Court and serve as clerks. But she conceded that a certain catching-up is in order. Comparing the U.S. to its closest neighbor, she pointed out that four of the nine Justices on the current Canadian Supreme Court, including its Chief Justice, are women.
When audience members got the opportunity to pose their own questions, a woman touched on the Bush Administration's war on terrorism, and deplored how government lawyers have effectively legalized the use of torture and circumvented international agreements on the treatment of detainees. She wondered whether the U.S. would ever be able to rehabilitate its tarnished human-rights record. Ginsburg's response was categorical: When it comes to treaties the U.S has signed, with ratification by the Senate, obeying all of their provisions is the only legal course of action. 'International law is part of our law,' she affirmed.
Moreover, stressing the importance of 'looking abroad' to inform one's understanding of complex issues, Ginsburg advised against systematically ignoring the findings of other jurisdictions. While not advocating for the U.S Supreme Court to follow other countries' edicts, she warned, 'We will not be listened to if we don't listen in return.'
A young lawyer remembered the embarrassment she felt for her profession and the country's legal establishment in 2000 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Bush campaign in the controversial Bush v. Gore presidential election case. In what constituted the afternoon's less expansive answer, Ginsburg simply said, 'It was out of order,' before adding that the decision has not been cited in other briefs or arguments because there exists an implicit belief that doing so would not be wise. She hinted that, having now moved on, the Court had no intention of revisiting the messy situation. At the time, she wrote one of four dissenting opinions and joined the other three.
Finally, when Madigan asked, 'What can we be doing as feminists?' Ginsburg mentioned the education of young women as the prime task. 'I put my money on the women and that is what this foundation is doing,' she proclaimed, clearly pleased to have shared a part of her day with those who share her ideals.