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Fri Jan 11, 2019, 02:56 PM

Book review: "Ruth Bader Ginsburg": The evolution of a justice

Edith Roberts
Posted Fri, January 11th, 2019 10:04 am

Book review: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”: The evolution of a justice

One might think that the market for treatments of the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would be saturated by now. The past three years alone have seen the release of a carefully curated collection of the justice’s writings, “My Own Words,” a surprise hit documentary about her life and career, “RBG,” and a recent feature film, “On the Basis of Sex,” which focuses on the first sex-discrimination case Ginsburg argued in federal court. Now comes “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life,” by Jane Sherron De Hart, a retired professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This book began as a research project examining Ginsburg’s early career as a women’s-rights litigator at the American Civil Liberties Union, and it expanded into a full-length biography (540 pages of text and 110 pages of footnotes).

Ginsburg spoke at length to the author during the early, limited part of the project, but she curtailed her cooperation later, likely because an authorized biography was (and remains) in the works. Whether because of De Hart’s own initial interest or the benefits of consultation with Ginsburg, the book is strongest when it focuses on Ginsburg’s early life and her work before her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. Readers will meet straight-A student and Brooklyn baton-twirler “Kiki” Bader, whose mother Celia died of cancer two days before Kiki’s high-school graduation. They will shake their heads at the notion that Ginsburg, although graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law School, was offered a clerkship with a federal judge only after her law professor Gerald Gunther offered to substitute another (presumably male) candidate if Ginsburg did not pan out. And they will be touched by Ginsburg’s enduring partnership with her husband, Marty, who, as Ginsburg has said, “believed in me more than I believed in myself.”


Some of De Hart’s most valuable insights come in her account of how Ginsburg, who, in an effort “not [to] be considered confrontational,” responded to Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold’s query about why she was occupying a place in the first-year class that could have gone to a man by saying it was important for her to “understand her husband’s work,” came to espouse women’s rights so whole-heartedly. De Hart traces some through lines that help explain how Ginsburg developed the ideas of equality that informed her determination to secure equal treatment for women under the law. Notable among these was a fortuitous sojourn in Sweden to research Swedish civil procedure. Ginsburg was struck by “the greater gender equality Swedes enjoyed” and by Swedish theorists’ and social scientists’ contention that “culturally constructed roles – stereotypical assumptions about the proper role of men and women – imposed constraints on both sexes that penalized individuals and impoverished society.”

Ginsburg’s experiences in Sweden, coupled with the sexism she had experienced and the influence of feminist writers like Simone de Beauvoir, prompted her to helm the ACLU’s new Women’s Rights Project. Her analytical tenacity, single-minded focus on work, meticulous planning, and uncompromisingly high standards enabled her to devise and carry out her goals successfully. De Hart offers detailed accounts of the series of cases through which Ginsburg succeeded in persuading the Supreme Court to raise the standard of review for laws that treated men and women differently based on damaging stereotypes about gender roles. She observes, as have others before her, that Ginsburg’s incremental approach – building in small steps on early cases with sympathetic plaintiffs, often men – was modeled on Justice Thurgood Marshall’s strategy of combating racial discrimination as a litigator for the NAACP. But she also highlights the pitfalls of equating gender discrimination with racial discrimination, particularly as an increasingly conservative Supreme Court began to insist on a “color blind” approach to the Constitution that subjected affirmative action programs to strict scrutiny.
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The author of this book review clerked for Ginsburg from 1989-1990 on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Ginsburg’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Recommended Citation: Edith Roberts, Book review: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”: The evolution of a justice, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 11, 2019, 10:04 AM), http://www.scotusblog.com/2019/01/book-review-ruth-bader-ginsburg-the-evolution-of-a-justice/

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