October 16, 2003

Justice Ginsburg: A Supreme Woman

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During a whirlwind trip to Ithaca this afternoon, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’54 will introduce President Jeffrey S. Lehman ’77 at Barton Hall during Lehman’s installation ceremony. Scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. following a chimes concert on the Arts Quad and a procession to Barton Hall, the installation ceremony is the paramount event in the formal ordination of President Lehman.

The decision to bring Ginsburg to campus for this event was Lehman’s own, according to Simeon Moss, deputy director of the Cornell News Service: “President Lehman himself made the invitation to Justice Ginsburg to speak at his inauguration.”

In a previous Sun story, Lehman said his impression of Ginsburg was formed by her high status and prominent accomplishments. “Justice Ginsburg has been for me and I think for many lawyers and law professors a source of inspiration. To have her come to the campus and present me to the community is humbling,” he said.

Lehman and Ginsburg recently crossed paths in the Supreme Court when Lehman successfully argued Grutter v. Bollinger, a case concerning the University of Michigan Law School’s approach to affirmative action. Ginsburg was part of the majority decision to uphold universities’ freedom to consider race as a partial factor in the admissions process in order to achieve meaningful levels of racial integration. The decision is considered to be one of the most important decisions in the history of higher education.

There are students who are looking forward to Ginsburg’s appearance because of this link to Lehman. “I think it’s interesting that Ginsburg will be speaking, since both she and Lehman have fought for minorities’ rights in the past,” said Emiley Fong ’04.

Ginsburg has been making a name for herself as a prominent woman throughout her life. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in government at Cornell, where she was elected Phi Beta Kappa and graduated first among the women in her class. Ginsburg was then one of nine women alongside the 500 men entering Harvard Law School in 1954. She was elected to the Harvard Law Review before she transferred to Columbia, where she was promptly elected to the Columbia Law Review. When she graduated in 1959, Ginsburg was tied for first in her class.

Though she was admitted to the New York State Bar that same year, Ginsburg was not offered a single job from a New York law firm since few legal employers welcomed women at the time. Instead, she took a two-year clerkship with a federal district judge and simultaneously worked as an author and researcher on a comparative legal studies project at Columbia Law School.

Ginsburg began teaching law in 1963 when she was named to the law faculty at Rutgers, and continued on to become the first tenured female law professor at Columbia Law School in 1972.

During the 1960s, Ginsburg became general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union and cofounded its Women’s Rights Project. With the ACLU, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and succeeded with five of them.

Ginsburg was nominated for the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton, and took her seat on Aug. 10, 1993. The Senate confirmed her by a vote of 97 to 3. Ginsburg is the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice and only the second woman Justice.

Addressing members of the Cornell community will not be new experience for Ginsburg. Each semester, she speaks to the students in the Cornell-in-Washington program, usually from within the Supreme Court. At these sessions, Ginsburg has spoken about the procedures of the Supreme Court as well as her experience at Cornell as a student.

While speaking with CIW students two years ago, Ginsburg recalled that her favorite courses as an undergraduate included “music, art history, and a literature course with a professor named Nabokov.”

Though Ginsburg’s presence has created a stir on campus, some students and professors will be unable to attend the installation ceremony due to classes.

“Though I deeply regret missing her, I refuse to cancel my classes, so I will not be present at her address during the inauguration. We are friends from years gone by and there is no one in the world I respect more,” said Prof. Theodore J. Lowi, the J. L. Senior Professor of American Studies.

Fong, who plans to attend the ceremony, offered topics she hopes Ginsburg will address.

“I’m excited. I hope she’ll tell us what her hopes are for Cornell, and for our presence in the country and world in general — considering our new medical campus in Qatar,” she said.

Archived article by Tony Apuzzo