Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life

By Jane Sherron De Hart

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 752 pages, $35

 Jane Sherron De Hart’s new biography of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings to mind Emerson’s 1841 essay, “Self Reliance,” in which he famously admonished: “Don’t go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Well-researched and authoritative, the book chronicles the life, career and significance of the second woman to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, whose impatience with sexism and injustice has broken barriers since her law school days in the late 1950s. In the years to come, when readers examine the emergence of the first critical mass of important women in the legal profession, this book will help them understand the trail left by Ginsburg.

The author is a professor emerita of history at the University of California (Santa Barbara), who has devoted her academic career to feminist and gender legal history. In 1990, she published (with Donald G. Mathews) the award-winning book, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of Sex: A State and a Nation. Dating back to the 1960s, her distinguished academic career has prepared her well to write the story of Ginsburg, whose own emergence as an academic and a lawyer had its genesis in the same time period. As such, she is able to write with the experience, perspective and depth that her subject deserves.

Over 15 years in the making, the book was originally supposed to focus on Ginsburg’s days in the 1970s as a civil rights litigator. The justice granted generous access to the archives of her 1970s litigation files and, in the early 2000s, provided one-half dozen interviews to the author.

In 2008, however, a California wildfire destroyed much of the author’s research and writing on the book. Undeterred, she pressed ahead and, over time, transformed the book into the first full-length Ginsburg biography, albeit an unauthorized one. Ginsburg’s authorized biographers, Mary Hartnett and Wendy Williams, who assisted the justice in preparing the 2016 book of her selected writings, entitled My Own Words, are still writing their “authorized biography.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ginsburg’s egalitarian proclivities were instilled early by her mother, Celia Bader, who, despite excellent grades, did not further her own education because her parents instead decided to send her brother to college. Celia admired strong, independent-minded women, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, and urged her daughter to pursue a teaching career. Ginsburg has reflected that her mother “was the strongest and bravest person I have ever known.”

On the eve of Ginsburg’s graduation from James Madison High School, her mother died of cancer. Ginsburg’s grief at her mother’s death was heightened by the exclusion she felt when, sitting Shivah, the women were not counted in forming a minyan in saying prayers for the dead. According to the author, “the emotions inspired by the incident lingered, becoming a turning point in [Ginsburg’s] decision to become a secular Jew.”

Ginsburg attended Cornell University, earning scholarships to cover her tuition. Like other elite colleges, Cornell in the 1950s was not a welcoming place for Jews, who were marginalized socially. Moreover, it was not fashionable for the women students “to be seen reading and studying.” A “dedicated student” who majored in government, Ginsburg thus “found out-of-the-way classrooms, specialized libraries, and even empty bathrooms in campus buildings where she could work without being seen.” During her Cornell tenure, Ginsburg’s scholarship was influenced by Vladimir Nabakov, who taught European literature, and Robert Cushman, a constitutional law expert.

At Cornell, Ginsburg met her husband, Martin, an “ebullient, witty, and gregarious” son of a department store vice president from Rockville Centre. The couple married in June 1954, soon after her graduation.  By all accounts, they enjoyed a remarkable marriage, which lasted until Martin’s 2010 death. One of the strengths of the book is the author’s descriptions of the myriad of ways in which Martin, who became a distinguished tax partner at Weil Gotschal & Manges, supported and celebrated his wife’s legal career.

Another strength of the book is the author’s chronicling of the sexism suffered by Ginsburg in law school in the late 1950s and her early years in the legal profession in the 1960s. Despite graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law School, Ginsburg was unable to find a job or clerkship.

With the assistance of Professor Gerald Gunther, however, Ginsburg was eventually hired by a reluctant Judge Edmund Palmieri who, during her two years working in his chambers, became impressed by her work ethic, incisive analysis, competence, loyalty, and charm. Judge Palmieri, who served on the federal bench for 35 years, considered Ginsburg to be one of his top proteges.

Following her clerkship, Ginsburg went into academia, serving as a law professor specializing in civil procedure at Rutgers and Columbia.

In the late 1960s, however, Ginsburg developed another specialty in the emerging area of gender equality.  By 1970, she had co-founded the “Women’s Rights Law Reporter,” the first legal journal of its kind. By 1972, she had co-founded the “Women’s Rights Project” at the ACLU, which participated in hundreds of gender equality cases. From this post, Ginsburg became an accomplished legal strategist and appellate advocate, arguing six sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court.

The best part of the book deals with this portion of Ginsburg’s career, in the 1970s, when she was in a state of “becoming,” making her first huge mark on the legal profession.

In the late 1970s, Ginsburg aspired to become a federal judge. The Second Circuit screening panel rejected her as too inexperienced. In 1980, however, she obtained an appointment to the D.C. Circuit. There, she established a record as a centrist. As adroitly observed by the author, nowhere was this more in evidence than in 1984, when she sided in measured prose with conservatives such as Antonin Scalia, Kenneth Starr and Robert Bork in rejecting en banc review in Dronenburg v. Zech, a case which had rejected a gay naval officer’s claim to a constitutional right to privacy.

The last 244 pages deal with Ginsburg’s 25-year tenure on the Supreme Court.  Predictably, the author focuses much of this portion of the book on Ginsburg’s significant civil rights decisions involving gender equality, women’s reproductive rights, voting rights and marriage equality. It is written with the care and balance needed for a mass audience readership. For lawyers and scholars, the 110 pages of endnotes provide much sustenance.

As the book aptly describes, Ginsburg has over the past eight years finally settled into a state of “being,” as the senior justice of the liberal wing of the court following the 2010 retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. Her signature dissents have become as powerful and memorable as any of her majority opinions. Following no one else’s path, she has blazed her own trail. In the words of Dag Hammarskjold, its motto is: “Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your convictions.”

Jeffrey M. Winn is a management liability attorney for the Chubb Group, a global insurer, and is a member of and the secretary to the executive committee of the New York City Bar Association.