U.S. Supreme Justice Elena Kagan chats with her colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the annual Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law Monday at the New York City Bar. Kagan was the guest lecturer.
U.S. Supreme Justice Elena Kagan chats with her colleague Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the annual Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law Monday at the New York City Bar. Kagan was the guest lecturer. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

More than any other individual, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “is responsible for eliminating sex discrimination from American law,” fellow Justice Elena Kagan said in a lecture Monday night that paid homage to Ginsburg’s fight for women’s equality.

Kagan noted that more than a quarter of a century separated her own appointment to the court from the appointment of the first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, and she credited O’Connor and Ginsburg for paving the way for women.

“In those 25 years, the world has changed, so that my and Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor’s post-law school career paths were ever so much easier,” said Kagan, who took office in 2010.

About 400 mostly female attendees turned out at the New York City Bar Association to hear a rare, extended commentary by one justice on a sitting colleague’s work.

With Ginsburg seated in the front row, Kagan opened her remarks by showing off her Ginsburg bobblehead, her “Notorious R.B.G.” T-shirt and blown-up portraits of Ginsburg from a BuzzFeed article, “19 Reasons Ruth Bader Ginsburg is Your Favorite Supreme Court Justice.”

She discussed Ginsburg’s “greatest hits”—six cases from her years as a litigator and Supreme Court justice that were instrumental in advancing women’s rights.

As a lawyer with the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU arguing before the Supreme Court, Ginsburg took on codified, gender-based discrimination in Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971); Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973); and Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976). In Boren, the Supreme Court established intermediate scrutiny as a new standard of review for laws with gender-based classifications.

Kagan also highlighted the majority opinion Ginsburg wrote in United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996), where she struck down the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and her dissents in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 618 (2007) and Vance v. Ball State, 133 S. Ct. 2434 (2013).

Kagan praised Ginsburg’s talent as a litigator for recognizing the right moment in time to bring a particular case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“As a lawyer … she chose her clients, her cases and her targets with exquisite care to avoid pushing the court too far, too fast,” Kagan said.

Ginsburg has taken a similarly conservative approach as a judge, she continued, avoiding sweeping rulings like Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Ginsburg has publicly stated that while she agrees with the court’s judgment in Roe, the opinion came too early and went too far.

Monday’s event was part of the City Bar’s annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law, which started in 2000. This is the first time Ginsburg herself was honored. Past honorees include Madeleine Albright, former Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye, former New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse, and state and federal judges from around the U.S.

Both justices took questions after Kagan’s speech. Asked what ordinary women can do to “even the playing field” in society and the workplace, Ginsburg took younger women to task for taking previous generations’ equality fight for granted.

“I am a little worried that the gains that women have made have slowed and there could even be a backslide,” she said. “I wonder why today’s young women don’t seem to be as fired up as the women in my generation were about ensuring that women have an equal chance to aspire to follow their dreams.”

When a second-year law student asked for general career advice, Ginsburg replied she got the most satisfaction from using her position as a lawyer to helping those less fortunate.

It’s important, she said, to “have a skill that you can use to make a living but also to make things better for other people, to repair tears in your community.”