Dr. Susan L. Karamanian, Dean of the College of Law at Qatar Foundation’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University, remembers the trailblazing icon of the U.S. justice system – and her personal experience with a woman dedicated to advancing equality.
The recent death of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has prompted questions from my friends in Qatar about her and her contributions to the law. I was fortunate to have met the Justice on four occasions. As a US lawyer, I have read her judicial opinions, including her “notorious” dissents. Her steadfast commitment to the rule of law, particularly in the face of adversity, has inspired generations of lawyers, would be lawyers, and many others who have never wanted to become a lawyer.
In 1993, Justice Ginsburg became the second woman confirmed to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Like Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman justice on the Court, Justice Ginsburg graduated from one of the nation’s top law schools in the 1950s, yet had difficulty getting a job due to her gender. Unable to secure one of the coveted positions in a law firm, which were readily available for men who graduated from Columbia Law School – and especially one who was in the top of the class – Justice Ginsburg would first clerk for a federal district judge, thanks to the intervention of one of her Columbia Law School professors. She would later become a law professor and an advocate for justice. In that latter capacity, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Her advocacy was on behalf of gender quality, not solely ‘women’s’ rights. This is an important distinction, as “equal protection of the law” meant equality for all. So one of her landmark cases recognized that military benefits were to apply equally, regardless of the gender of the person in military service.
Due to the path-breaking work of Justice Ginsburg and other women trailblazers, when I graduated from law school in 1985, my gender was not an apparent issue in the hiring process. As a woman, I was able to open my own bank account, secure my own credit card, and apply for a loan in my name.
Her steadfast commitment to the rule of law, particularly in the face of adversity, has inspired generations of lawyers, would be lawyers, and many others who have never wanted to become a lawyer
Immediately before joining the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a Judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, one of the federal appellate courts that sits below the Supreme Court. In nominating her to the Supreme Court, President Clinton recognized the “pioneering work” of Ruth Bader Ginsburg “in behalf of women in this country“ and that she “has compiled a truly historic record of achievement in the finest traditions of American law and citizenship.”
In addition to her rigorous dissents, Justice Ginsburg is known throughout the world, in particular, for her strong appreciation of international law and foreign law. Before officially becoming a law professor, she directed a research project on comparative civil procedure at Columbia Law School. She learned Swedish and moved to Sweden to research Swedish civil procedure. In certain opinions, she advocated use of foreign and international law to give effect to certain US law, including the Constitution, and she regularly spoke about this subject at conferences and symposia.
Her advocacy was on behalf of gender quality, not solely ‘women’s’ rights. This is an important distinction, as “equal protection of the law” meant equality for all
Two of my interactions with Justice Ginsburg had a lasting impact on me. In 2010, a month before she was to be a keynote speaker at a long-planned, major international conference that I had helped organize, Justice Ginsburg’s husband Marty passed away. My co-organizers and I were prepared to look for a replacement, yet she honored her commitment, even during her time of great sorrow. After her death, I read of similar accounts of how the Justice understood a commitment to mean just that.
Second, in an informal conversation with Justice Ginsburg, I remember how her eyes lit up when I mentioned Belva Ann Lockwood. In 1880, Belva became the first woman to argue a case before the US Supreme Court yet only after convincing the US Congress to pass legislation enabling qualified women to appear as counsel in federal court. At that time, women could not vote or serve on a jury. Belva went on to run for President of the United States in 1884 and 1888 under the National Equal Rights Party, and she was instrumental in the Peace Movement of the late 1800s.
As I had been researching Belva, I thought I knew every angle of her life. Yet Justice Ginsburg had more detailed insights as in our discussion over dinner she linked Belva to a number of other women who forever changed the role of women in the United States and beyond.
We now include Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg among those individuals who profoundly shaped our world. We honor her memory as we go forward in pursuit of justice.