When There Are Nine
A Tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Written by Karri Bertrand
Above: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks
to a crowd in Dallas on August 29, 2011, as part of SMU Dedman School of
Law’s Louise Ballerstedt Raggio Endowed Lecture Series. Photo courtesy
of SMU Dedman School of Law.
Appointed by President Bill Clinton and seated to the U.S. Supreme Court on August 10, 1993,1 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was only the second female appointed to the highest court. After Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement, Ginsburg fully appreciated the significance of being the only female on the court, even if only briefly:2 “It’s almost like being back in law school in 1956, when there were nine [female students] in a class of over 500 … Every time you went to answer a question, you were answering for your entire sex.”3
An articulate and forceful advocate, Ginsburg made her mark both on and off the bench, blazing trails and shattering glass ceilings with elegance and grace. Wielding a boldness that belied her slight stature and mild manner, Ginsburg bravely and eloquently penned many highly regarded opinions and powerful dissents,4 never forsaking her sex or sisterhood. In 1973, arguing her first case before the Supreme Court in Frontiero v. Richardson5 on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, Ginsburg channeled the words of 19th century abolitionist Sarah Grimké, stating frankly: “I ask no favors for my sex … All I ask of our brethren is, that they take their feet off our necks.”6
Ginsburg had written a 70-page amicus brief in support of Sharron Frontiero’s claim that her constitutional right to equal protection under the laws had been violated, laying out the long history of discrimination against women and the Supreme Court’s position—unwavering until 1971—that legal distinction by sex was rational and therefore constitutional.7 The Frontiero case expanded on the court’s rationale in Reed v. Reed, which was both the first case Ginsburg had briefed before the Supreme Court and the court’s first-ever decision to invalidate a law that discriminated on the basis of sex.8 Ginsburg, then a law professor at Rutgers University and a volunteer lawyer with the ACLU, had helped found the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project,9 which went on to litigate numerous discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s, transforming the legal landscape for women.10
Loren Jacobson, herself a graduate of Ginsburg’s alma mater, Columbia Law School, and an assistant professor of law at UNT Dallas College of Law, shared the following on Ginsburg’s contribution to transforming the legal landscape for women:
Ruth Bader Ginsburg first made it plausible for women to enter the legal profession, because against all odds, she did it herself—as one of few women to enter Harvard Law School, as one of few women to get a federal clerkship, as the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. Then she made it possible for women to enter the legal profession and follow whatever other dreams they may have because she ensured that the law recognized and made difficult discrimination on the basis of sex. In other words, she didn’t just crack open a few doors for herself, a feat that alone would’ve been admirable; instead, she blew them open for all of us seeking equity and justice, a feat that is inspirational.
Blowing open doors for those seeking equity and justice was no small feat for Ginsburg, and upon her passing on September 18, 2020, many Texas leaders also shared their mutual admiration and respect for her significant accomplishments:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a titan of the Supreme Court for more than a quarter of a century. Despite our ideological differences, I have always maintained a deep respect for Justice Ginsburg. Her unwavering commitment to public service has inspired a generation of young Americans—particularly women—to reach for their dreams.
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, September 18, 2020.11
My heart goes out to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s family, and Cecilia and I are keeping them in our prayers. Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer of keen intellect and will be remembered as a judicial giant. She put service above self and leaves behind a grateful nation.
Gov. Greg Abbott, September 19, 2020.12
On October 30, 2020, the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, or DWLA; State Bar of Texas Women and the Law Section; Texas Trial Lawyers Association Women’s Caucus; and Texas Women Lawyers hosted a tribute in honor of Ginsburg. Distinguished panelists such as Texas Supreme Court Justices Eva Guzman and Debra Lehrmann, State Bar of Texas President-elect Sylvia Borunda Firth, and Texas Women Lawyers President Deborah Cordova spoke at the program, celebrating Ginsburg’s life, work, and legacy as a law professor, civil rights advocate, and judge.13
DWLA Immediate Past President Stephanie Culpepper shared that “the DWLA’s mission statement is to elevate the standing of women in the legal profession, and that is certainly what Justice Ginsburg did for each of us.”14
Deborah Cordova, president of Texas Women Lawyers, revered Ginsburg as “a legal, cultural, and feminist icon; an advocate for women and changing our nation in doing so; a pioneer and an inspiration to women of all ages.”15
Borunda Firth, State Bar of Texas president-elect and the first Hispanic woman to serve in this role, reflected on Ginsburg’s early life and dedication to education despite adversity: “My generation is the first generation of women who had the benefit of the hard work done by Justice Ginsburg.”16
Texas Supreme Court Justice Lehrmann, a jurist with 34 years of experience on the bench, shared that Ginsburg “was brilliant, hardworking, dedicated, tenacious, mindful, and forward-thinking” in overcoming the challenges she faced early in her law school education and career.17
I had the privilege of meeting Justice Ginsburg several times through my work through the American Bar Association and the Uniform Law Commission … and she always spoke of the importance of mentoring … and the need for women to support each other and to never let anyone get in your way.18
Justice Guzman, the first Hispanic woman elected to statewide office in Texas and the most senior associate justice on the Texas Supreme Court, added:
Justice Ginsburg’s story resonates with a lot of women in the law, and especially women of color. The unseen or unacknowledged barriers make the accomplishments all the more compelling … Women from all walks of life were inspired by her life. She fulfilled all of her roles at a time in our history when engaging in any one of them was groundbreaking … She responded to the disparate treatment of women by becoming a leader.19
Guzman also celebrated the Texas Supreme Court’s swearing in of
Justice Rebeca Aizpuru Huddle, the court’s unprecedented fourth
Known for her dissents and coordinating collars (jabots),21 Ginsburg delivered on June 25, 2013, one of her many memorable dissents in Shelby County v. Holder to a courtroom full of anxious listeners, including Ginsburg’s recently retired friend and former Supreme Court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor.22 Ginsburg lamented, “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA (Voting Rights Act).”23 She compared killing the VRA to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”24 She also shared with the courtroom that what was at stake was “once the subject of a dream … a voice to every voter in our democracy undiluted by race.”25 After nodding in his direction, she later directly quoted Martin Luther King Jr., stating, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice;” adding, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”26
Ginsburg unquestionably exemplified a steadfast commitment to justice through her life’s work. However, her approach became more pragmatic over time. She later challenged others to “Fight for the things you care about, but do so in a way that will lead others to join you.”27
Ginsburg provided the following insight at Georgetown University on February 5, 2015:
In the ancient days, when I was going to college, the law wasn’t a welcoming profession for women. In those days, in the Southern District, most judges wouldn’t hire women.
In the U.S. attorney’s office, women were strictly forbidden in the Criminal Division. There was one woman in the Civil Division. And the excuse for not hiring women in the Criminal Division was they have to deal with all these tough types, and women aren’t up to that. And I was amazed. I said, have you seen the lawyers at legal aid who are representing these tough types? They’re all women.
People ask me sometimes, when—when do you think it will it be enough? When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.
Perhaps these words alone are insufficient to capture the entirety of
Ginsburg’s fierce loyalty to her female colleagues, but they do offer a
glimpse into the spirit that fueled her life’s work.
Ginsburg went on to say, “If I had any talent in the world, any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva.”28
Dearest Ruth, your diva status has been secured.TBJ
is an associate of O’Neil Wysocki, specializing in appeals, complex custody, and LGBTQ+ family law. She serves on the board of directors of the Dallas LGBT Bar Association, a sister bar of the Dallas Bar Association, and on the Dallas Steering Committee for Equality Texas. Bertrand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 972-852-8000.