One is not generally moved to tears when reading judicial decisions. Often written in legalese, the decisions and dissents of the United States Supreme Court are rarely page-turners. But My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a collection of her writing from her earliest days to her most recent decisions from the bench, is a moving tribute to the power of decency, to collegiality and humour, and to the vital necessity for respect for civil institutions.
A companion piece to a forthcoming biography by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, My Own Words demonstrates Ginsberg’s remarkable consistency of mind, from her earliest published pieces in a school newspaper to her most recent decisions and dissents as a Supreme Court Justice. Only the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1993, and the first woman granted tenure on the faculty of Columbia Law School, in 1972, Ginsburg is a fierce champion of women’s rights, civil rights, and a vision of the US Constitution as a living document with the flexibility to meet the “increasingly full use of the talent of all of this nation’s people”, as she said while accepting her nomination to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. My Own Words details not only the pathways of her thinking, but also the evolution of the US justice system as it began to crack open under the weight of both the civil rights and the women’s movement.
Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933 into a middle-class Jewish family. She attended New York City public schools at a time when American society was beginning to grapple with its long history of discrimination. Even as a child she demonstrated a strong attachment to the ideals of social justice, civil liberties and international law. In 1946, aged 13, she wrote an editorial for her school newspaper, the Highway Herald, extolling the virtues of the nascent United Nations. She studied with Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell University, who no doubt influenced her belief in the power of the precisely chosen word.
From her first appearance before the Supreme Court in 1970, as author of an amicus brief for Air Force Lieutenant Sharon Frontiero, who was suing the Secretaries of Defense and the Air Force for violating her constitutional right of equal protection under the laws by not granting her the same family benefits accorded to male service members, Ginsburg emerged a vibrant defender of the rights of those traditionally shut out of consideration by the US legal system. She argued that sex as a barrier to discrimination was, like race, an entirely suspect category. It’s hard to fathom today how significant an argument that was. She notes that “until 1971, women did not prevail before the Supreme Court in any case charging unconstitutional sex discrimination”. Ginsburg’s staunch belief in the symbiotic workings of all three branches of government, judicial, legislative and executive, is a balm in light of recent political events in the United States, where those long-held norms and traditions seem about to be upended. Mindful as she is of the relative lack of power of the Court’s decisions, Ginsburg considers that judges are not “platonic guardians” but participate in “a dialogue with other organizations of government, and with the people as well”. The primacy of judicial independence in Ginsburg’s thinking cannot be underestimated. Indeed, it is the bedrock upon which the American legal system rests: “Essential to the rule of law in any land… [are] judges not under the thumb of other branches of government… [It] can be shattered if the society law exists to serve does not take care to assure its preservation.”
For Ginsburg, the Court is not a moral cudgel but a means of redressing, even through dissenting opinions, “the still-lingering, everyday evident, effects of centuries of law-sanctioned inequality”. Reading her clear, measured, sometimes sharp words, it’s important to remember how much a product of her times Ginsburg is. Educated in well-funded public schools, flush with civic fervour in an America not only horrified by the events of World War II, but also shamed into taking action against its own civil rights abuses, Ginsburg’s lifetime combat against discrimination and inequality speaks to an ideal vision of the American experiment. One can only hope that it endures.
My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Simon and Schuster, 2016
Jennifer Weisberg is a writer in Brooklyn.
Featured Image : Painting by Steve Petteway, Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States.