We Cheered Justice Ginsburg’s Victories As We Understood Her Struggle

NCAJ asked two members to offer personal reflections on the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Pioneering intellectual property attorney Susan Olive offers her perspective here.

By Susan Olive

When I think of Justice Ginsburg, I most strongly remember her sense of moral responsibility, her belief that the law exists to do justice, and her willingness and courage to fight for what is right. She quintissentially spoke truth to power, working to carry out the Biblical command in Jeremiah: “Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place.”

But I also remember her “balanced” side: the side that said, “Work for what you believe in, but pick your battles, and don’t burn your bridges. Don’t be afraid to take charge, think about what you want, then do the work, but then enjoy what makes you happy, bring along your crew, have a sense of humor.” Her lifetime included decades of marriage to a husband she loved, raising children, enjoying time as a grandmother, and mentoring a bevy of law clerks.

Her fight for justice stemmed from a career shaped by discrimination. She reflected time and time again on being asked by Harvard’s law school dean why she was taking a place that should have gone to a male. That experience resonated. I, for example, was told by a professor that it was a waste of time for me to take his class because I’d just get married and have twins. Others around the country had similar stories. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was us.

Her first-in-class rank at graduation resulted in no job offer from any local law firms, and no upper-rank judicial clerkship of the sort a male could expect. Her gender, she said, was a barrier; her motherhood, the killing blow.

Pregnancy and motherhood were discrimination triggers that I and many other women also faced. Thus, when Justice Ginsburg described hiding her second pregnancy to avoid job discrimination, that tactic resonated. We knew what she meant, and many of us had felt obligated to do likewise. I myself hid my pregnancy during the election that resulted in my becoming president of the Durham bar, the year after a prior female candidate recommended by the nominating committee had been opposed from the floor and defeated. And I vividly recall appearing before a mysoginistic judge on the day before I was to give birth. Knowing he would not reach our case and that I was scheduled to be at the hospital, he nonetheless refused to continue the matter until he himself was ready to leave.

Justice Ginsburg’s experiences made her an unabashed feminist. Her victories were watched and cheered by me and by other female lawyers not only because they got results with which we agreed and that would help all women, but also because her experiences so closely mirrored our own.

Even her struggle to maintain work-life balance matched and informed the lives of women attorneys, as she described a “time distribution” schedule that deliberately dedicated time for her family, including playtime, while still maintaining a full workload during school and thereafter. As she said, you can “have it all” in life, but it’s unrealistic to expect to have it all at once and there inevitably will be rough patches. Those of us who were struggling could see that she’d struggled too, and succeeded.

She both explained and modeled her approach to persuasion: Fight for the things that you care about, she said, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you. Believing that discrimination often stems from ignorance, she recognized and strove to dispel ignorance. One example was her passionate explanation during oral argument, to skeptical justices who had never been prepubescent girls, as to the humiliating effect of strip-searching a 13-year-old girl. Her words clearly bore fruit in the Court’s subsequent 8:1 decision holding the strip search unconstitutional. Where she did not succeed, she continued to speak truth to power, writing dissents that resonate, hopeful that down the road, those words would become the majority view.

Even as she suffered from the pancreatic cancer that finally took her life, Justice Ginsburg kept working. I felt privileged to appear before her and the other members of the Court last November. She always said that despite philosophical differences, she and the other justices were collegial and became true friends. I saw that in action. When the members of the Court took their seats, Justice Ginsburg was among the last to arrive. Justice Clarence Thomas had very obviously been keeping an eye out for her, and I watched as he got up and carefully helped her ascend to the bench and sit down. He did the same when she was ready to leave.

Justice Ginsburg’s life sends a message that should resonate with all lawyers: We have a duty, an obligation, and an ability, to make this nation and the world a better place for everyone. Dispel ignorance and its accompanying biases. Work for justice. Don’t rest on past successes: “guard against backsliding,” she admonished, to ensure an America in which all persons “can aspire and achieve,” including our own daughters and granddaughters.

Finally, difficult though it may seem at times, we also must create a reasonable work-life balance. Even if we can’t “have it all” at once, we must do the very best job we can with the tasks set before us, and then take time to enjoy what makes us happy.

Those are good lessons, and goals, for all of us.

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