Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law, left, with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at NYU Law School on Monday, Feb. 5th. All photos: David Handschuh/NYLJ.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
NYU Law students line up to listen to Justice Ginsburg discuss diversity.
Justice Ginsburg waves at the audience in greeting.
From left, Professor Yoshino and NYU Law Dean Trevor Morrison escort Justice Ginsburg to the stage.
Professor Yoshino walks Justice Ginsburg off the stage after their discussion.
The director of NYU School of Law’s Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging asked Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg why in 2017 only 19 percent of equity partners at major law firms were women. And at this pace, Kenji Yoshino said, women will not achieve gender parity for at least another 100 years.
But in an appearance at the law school Monday, Ginsburg had a much more sanguine view.
“Instead of looking at the way it is, how about looking back to the way it was?” she asked.
When she graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, there were only nine women in her class. “There were no women partners. There were no women associates,” she said. Many firms wouldn’t even interview women, and when she did get an interview, “I don’t know how many times I was told we had a woman once and she was dreadful.”
People assume that she’s always wanted to be a judge, she said, but her motivation was less complicated than that. “The answer is I wanted a job in the law,” she told a hushed crowd of 450 or so at Tishman Auditorium and another 150 watching in an overflow room.
But she did have some complaints about the composition of the Supreme Court. Should there be more women? “People have asked me when will there be enough and my answer is when there are nine,” she quipped.
Ginsburg, of course, is no stranger to gender issues. In 1971, she was instrumental in launching the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and served as the ACLU’s general counsel from 1973 to 1980.
Nor is it the first time she’s spoken publicly about the #MeToo movement, revealing in an interview in January with NPR’s Nina Totenberg and onstage at the Sundance Film Festival that she was sexually harassed by a chemistry professor while an undergraduate at Cornell University. Her appearance at the festival coincided with the release of a new documentary about her life, “RBG.”
“There are very few people who have had as profound an impact publicly as an advocate and as a judge,” said NYU School of Law Dean Trevor Morrison, who clerked for Ginsburg from 2002 to 2003 and introduced her Monday afternoon.
Ginsburg serves as a rallying point for law school students because of her women’s rights advocacy and the decisions she has authored since President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1993, Morrison said in an interview. He cited the landmark case United States v. Virginia, (94-1941), 518 U.S. 515 (1996), which struck down the male-only admission policy of the Virginia Military Institute.
Morrison called Ginsburg one of the two most significant role models in his life and said he consults her when he has to make important decisions. “She has been a hugely important mentor to me. She’s someone who by her example has helped guide me and many others,” he said.
She’s a larger-than-life presence at her alma mater, Columbia Law School, from which she graduated first in her class in 1959 and to which she returned to teach in 1972. “It’s well known to anybody who goes to Columbia that she’s one of ours. She’s been a large figure in their lives from the day they walked through the door,” Gillian Lester, the dean of Columbia Law School, said recently.
For NYU law student JoAnna Suriani, Monday was her third time in Ginsburg’s presence. She attended the Ginsburg lecture at the New York City Bar Association her first year in law school, observed the justice on the bench after that and squeezed in the NYU School of Law appearance only months before graduation. Suriani said Ginsburg’s willingness to speak candidly, to joke about how she’s portrayed on “Saturday Night Live” and to follow her conscience when writing opinions has given her cult status.
She is “personally inspiring to me and to generations of young female attorneys,” Suriani said, calling Ginsburg a “feminist icon.” The force of her personality has made the Supreme Court easier to relate to “in a way that I think humanizes the bench. I think that’s a huge part of her appeal.”
Ginsburg is in the midst of visiting four law schools, a university and two synagogues over two weeks. She will be interviewed by New York Law School professor Nadine Strossen on Tuesday as part of the Sidney Shainwald Public Interest Lecture. The event, which will also feature remarks by Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, will take place at the school’s event center in New York City.
“Justice Ginsburg is an integral part of the legal community. She is our Second Circuit justice. No Second Circuit Judicial Conference is complete without her. Her report at the conference is the highlight of the program,” Katzmann said.
On Feb. 11, Ginsburg is set to speak at Columbia University’s Women Conference, “She Opened the Door.” Her last event will be Feb. 12 at Penn Law where she will be the focus of a panel discussion that includes U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, Slate editor Dahlia Lithwick and Ninth Circuit John Owens. Later in the day, Ginsburg will deliver the law school’s Owen J. Roberts Memorial Lecture before nearly 1,000 people at the nearby National Constitution Center.
On Jan. 30, instead of attending the State of the Union, Ginsburg spoke to more than 200 law students, faculty and staff at Rogers Williams University School of Law during a “fireside chat” with First Circuit Senior Judge Bruce M. Selya. She addressed partisan battles over judicial nominations, her role in fighting gender discrimination, her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia—and even her workout routine.
During a question-and-answer session, a law student asked what decision has had the biggest impact on the young generation, and she cited the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage.
“It’s another example of how society has changed and the court is catching up,” Ginsburg said. “With the gay rights movement, people looked around and said, ‘That’s my next-door neighbor’ or, ‘That’s my daughter’s best friend.’ There wasn’t that ‘we/they’ anymore.”
Her appearance at NYU was part of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging speaker series, co-sponsored by the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network, Law Women and the Women of Color Collective.