Book review: The justice who put the bad old days behind us

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
(Photo by Justin Katz)

By Aaron Leibel

“Justice, Justice You Shalt Pursue: A Life’s Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union”

By Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda L. Tyler

University of California Press

As late as the middle of the 20th century, women weren’t permitted on juries. When a woman got pregnant, she couldn’t receive unemployment insurance payments. Pregnant Air Force officers were auto-matically discharged.

But then came Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As an attorney and appellate judge and as Supreme Court justice for 17 years, Ginsburg turned the world upside-down — or, more correctly, right side up.

In the 1970s, as director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and later as one of the ACLU’s general counsels, she briefed 10 Supreme Court cases on gender discrimination, winning seven, writes co-author Amanda L. Tyler, a former law clerk for Ginsburg and now professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

This book, a compilation of some of Ginsburg’s briefs, speeches and opinions and of a public conversation between the co-authors, shows her striving to fulfill Deuteronomy’s admonition to right the injustices in our imperfect world.

What differentiates this Ginsburg collection from others is how it humanizes the judge. For example, she need not have read about discrimination faced by women, for she encountered it close up.

She graduated from law school (Columbia) in 1959 tied for first in her class, but couldn’t get a job.

“There was no anti-discrimination in employment law, so employers were upfront about wanting no lady lawyers,” she recalled during the interview with Tyler. “Some of the sign-up sheets for interviews posted at Columbia said ‘men only.’”

Only heavy pressure from one of her professors secured her a clerkship with a judge.

Asked by Tyler in that same conversation if she had any marital advice, RBG replied: “My number one advice is choose a partner in life who thinks that your work is as important as his. [Husband] Marty was always my biggest booster. He also wanted to be an equal partner in parenting.”

She almost didn’t study law, she told Tyler. She and her boyfriend, later husband, decided to study in the same field. The choices got down to business and law. “For some reason, Marty wanted to go to Harvard,” RBG recalled. “The Harvard Business School didn’t admit women in the 1950s. It wasn’t until the middle ‘60s that they did. That left law school.”

Interestingly, two of the cases she took on in the name of gender equality had male clients. In Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, RBG won for her client a caregiver tax deduction that had been reserved only for women.

In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Wiesenfeld’s wife died in childbirth. He applied to Social Security to receive benefits to stay home to raise his son. His claim, which would have been allowed were he a woman, was denied. RBG fixed that.

These two cases permitted Ginsburg to show the justices how discrimination hurts both men and women, Tyler notes.

But it wasn’t only about gender equality. In a speech at a naturalization ceremony in 2018, she told the new immigrants that her father had come to America at 13 “with no fortune and not speaking English.” Her mother was born four months after her parents arrived in this country. “As testament to our nation’s promise, the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants sits on the highest Court in the land,” she said.

Sometimes, death raises people’s profiles. But other times, as with Ginsburg, an ordinary passing seems to spark mass adulation.

Of course, she had been a Supreme Court justice, whose work was known to the legal cognoscenti. But after her death she has become an icon, an inspiration especially to younger women who want to carry on her work.

“Justice, Justice You Shalt Pursue” demonstrates the merit of this acclaim.

Aaron Leibel’s memoir, “Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel
in the 1970s and 1980s,” can be purchased online.

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