Richard Nisley

Book Review: Ruth Bader Ginsburg – In My Own Words
History - American Released - Jan 26, 2020
What this book offers is an insight into who Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, which is very bright, kind, generous, loyal to family, friends, and colleagues, as well as devoted to the law in such a way as to promote equality and fair play in American society. At 333 pages the book is not overly long; best of all, Ms. Ginsburg is one heck of a writer, which means the many articles, legal briefs, and court opinions contained in these pages read exceedingly well. Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams are the editors, and provide various biographical details.

The book features writing samples from throughout her life, beginning with an editorial in her elementary school newspaper, written when she was 13. Interestingly, while other students her age wrote about school plays and club activities, Ruth wrote about the Ten Commandments, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the United Nations Charter.

Early on, Ruth's mother recognized that her daughter was gifted. "My mother was very strong about my doing well in school and living up to my potential," recalls Ruth. "Two things were important to her and she repeated them endlessly. One was to 'be a lady,' and that meant conduct yourself civilly, don't let emotions like anger or envy get in your way. And the other was to be independent, which was an unusual message for mothers of that time to be giving their daughters."

At her Brooklyn elementary school, Ruth graduated first in a class (of 144 students), and gave the valedictory speech. Her serious study habits and academic achievements notwithstanding, her classmates did not think of her as a "nerd" or "bookworm." According to one classmate, "She had this very quiet warmth, and a kind of magnetism."

A week before her high school graduation, her 48-year-old mother, who had been sick from cancer, died. That fall, Ruth began attending Cornell University in upstate New York, where she had been awarded a full scholarship. Two teachers proved influential: novelist Vladimir Nabokov, professor of European literature, and Robert E. Cushman, a political scientist and constitutional scholar. Nabokov changed the way she read and wrote. "(Nabokov) used words to paint pictures," recalls Ruth. " Even today, when I read, I notice with pleasure when an author has chosen a particular word, a particular place, for the picture it will convey to the reader." Writes the editors: "Ruth, whose judicial and scholarly writing is distinctively concise and well-crafted, credits Nabokov."

However, it was Robert Cushman, an eminent constitutional scholar and writer on civil liberties, who first encouraged Ruth to enter law school. This was the early 1950s, and Cushman assigned her to research Joe McCarthy's assault on civil liberties. "(He) wanted me to understand two things," Ruth recalls. "One is that we (as a nationwide in giving McCarthy an audience ) were betraying our most fundamental values, and two, that legal skills could help make things better, could help to challenge what was going on."

In November of her senior year, she wrote a letter to the editor of the Cornell Daily Sun on the admissibility of wiretapping evidence in espionage cases, in response to an article by two Cornell law students that favored a law in support of such tactics then before Congress. She writes: "We may be anxious to reduce crime, but we should remember in our system of justice, the presumption of innocence is prime. . . ."

It was during her first year at Cornell that Ms Bader, then 17, met the man who would become her best friend, husband and "life partner." At the time, Martin Ginsburg was 18 and a sophomore. The authors tell us he was handsome, gregarious, brilliant and brash. Marty and Ruth discovered they had much in common: both liked to laugh, enjoyed playing charades, and loved opera. They were married in June 1954, mere weeks after Ruth graduated from Cornell and Marty had finished his first year at Harvard Law School. Their daughter Jane was born the following summer (in July 1955), while the couple lived in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Marty was fulfilling his military obligation. In 1956 Ruth joined her husband at Harvard Law School, to become one of the first women to be admitted (she was one of nine women in a class of about 500). Her high academic achievements earned her a place on the Harvard Law Review.

After Marty graduated and took a job at one of New York City's top tax law firms, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated in 1959, tied for first in class. She applied to a number of law firms but none offered her a job, ostensibly because she was a woman. When a teaching position opened across the Hudson River, in Newark, New Jersey at State University School of Law, she accepted. In 1970, she argued her first case, before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, in Denver, Colorado. After winning, she was instrumental in launching the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, and became the leading advocate for gender equality. At the same time she became a professor at the Columbia University of Law. A year later, she argued her first case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Frontiero v. Richardson), the first of six such appearances before the nation's highest court, five of which she would win.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals, for the D.C. Circuit; in 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed her Associate Justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The book contains a number of Ginsburg's tributes to people she admired, including Belva Lockwood, a nineteenth-century pioneer in advancing gender equality; Sandra Day O'Connor, with whom she served on the Supreme Court; brilliant Judah P. Benjamin, who turned down President Millard Fillmore's nomination to the Supreme Court; and Louis Brandeis and Stephen Breyer, who both served on the High Court with great distinction; Gloria Steinem; retired Chief Justice William Rehnquist; and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

Also included are her articles on such topics as "Workways of the Supreme Court"; "Judicial Independence"; "The Role of Dissenting Opinions"; "Human Dignity and Equal Justice Under Law"; and various speeches, such as "The Rose Garden Acceptance Speech" in which she accepted President Clinton's appointment to the Supreme Court, and "Senate Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement" and "The VMI Bench Announcement", the Supreme Court's majority decision which she wrote that allowed women for the first time into all-male Virginia Military Institute; and, interestingly, "Law and Lawyers in Opera."

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