Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg describes experiences of gender discrimination as Journal of Law and Policy Colloquium keynote

With the help of WebEx, members of the Wake Forest University School of Law family and visiting justices received a rare look inside the council chambers of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg recently served as the keynote speaker at the Wake Forest Journal and Policy’s Spring Colloquium, “Gender and the Legal Profession: The Rise of Female Lawyers.” She spoke about the types of discrimination that female attorneys, jurors and clients have received in the court system over the years and the work that has been done to reverse the trend.

Speaking softly into the microphone on her computer with her law books and case files scattered on the desk behind, Ginsburg recalled multiple cases where she helped women receive equal rights. She said a 1971 case placed parents on the opposite side of the aisle after the death of their son. Ginsburg said the mother, Sally Reed, wanted to be the executor of the will, but since the couple was separated, the Idaho Probate Court sided with Cecil Reed. The court argued that “males were preferred over females” in appointing administrators to estates.

Ginsburg said Sally Reed thought this was wrong and considered it a set back for women’s rights. Ginsburg said she wrote a brief on the case that explained to the court why this was gender discrimination, and the Supreme Court later overturned the decision after determining that it was “unconstitutional” to give preferential treatment to someone as the executor of a will based on their gender.

Another discrimination case that Ginsburg argued was the 1979 case Duren v. Missouri. Ginsburg said the case involved discrimination during the jury selection process. She said jury duty was optional for women at that time in Missouri, which meant that women would receive automatic exemptions if they asked. Ginsburg argued that jury duty should not be optional for women because their service was just as valuable as men’s service. She argued that it also limited the rights of a defendant to have a trial by a jury that is chosen from a cross section of the community.

Ginsburg said that case overturned Duren’s conviction of first-degree murder and first-degree robbery. Five other cases in Missouri also were decided based on the same argument.

Ginsburg said she experienced some discrimination when she first joined the Supreme Court, but it wasn’t from the other judges. She explained that she and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O-Conner had to wear certain shirts so people wouldn’t get them confused. Ginsburg, chuckling a little, said she couldn’t understand how people could confuse the two of them but not the men. Ginsburg also noted that one of the first changes that had to be made at the Supreme Court upon her arrival was the addition of a second bathroom.

“Things have definitely changed during my time,” Ginsburg said. “Women are all over the bench now, and we are very active.”

Ginsburg said she encourages women to work hard and pursue their dreams of being successful attorneys and justices. She said strides that women make today will continue to make things better for future generations. She also said she encourages women to live balanced lives because she believes that the best attorneys are the ones that are multi-dimensional.

“Anything you think you can do, yes you can,” Ginsburg said. “Today there are no artificial barriers in your way. Find out what is your passion and work to achieve what you can.”