Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Visits VMI and W&L Law

Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the Virginia Military Institute

Ruth Bader Ginsburg visits the Virginia Military Institute

By: Brittany Vitner,
3L Staff Writer

Hollie Webb, 2L Online Editor

In 1996, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, holding the Commonwealth’s exclusion of women from VMI violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which led to the last all-male public university in the U.S. opening its doors to women. Justice Ginsburg’s visit to Lexington in February marked the first time she visited the area since the decision.

Justice Ginsburg was greeted by a standing ovation as she entered VMI’s auditorium, escorted by VMI cadets. A substantial portion of VMI students, alumni, W&L law students, professors, and a large number of the general public were there to see her. The Justice was relatively soft-spoken in her responses to questions from her official biographers, but when applause went on for too long, she demonstrated that she was quite willing to raise her voice so that the event could move forward.

The morning’s event was short, but the Justice was able to share a number of stories about her life and some thoughts about a few Supreme Court cases over which she presided. She also spoke about her rigorous fitness regimen with enthusiasm, sharing that her fitness trainer now trains two other Supreme Court justices on the bench.

Justice Ginsburg shared a personal story with the audience: the lapel pin she wore for her Lexington visit was a gift sent to her by a VMI cadet after the Supreme Court’s VMI ruling. In the letter which accompanied the gift, the cadet explained its special nature: the pin is traditionally given to mothers of VMI students. The cadet, who remained nameless, wished that Justice Ginsburg would have the pin after his mother passed away. In his letter, he stated that because of United States v. Virginia, Justice Ginsburg would be mother to all the students at VMI and wearing the pin would make his mother proud.

The Justice also talked about her time in college and what it was like to be one of only nine women in a class of nearly 500 at Harvard Law School. She said that it felt like she was always being watched, and that if she made a mistake, she was a reflection of, and thus failing, her gender. Justice Ginsburg noted that this is still a modern occurrence for women and other marginalized groups breaking into new fields.

The Justice also spoke about meeting her husband, Martin, while she was in undergrad at Columbia University. After they were married, they lived for a few years at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Martin was stationed as an officer.

Justice Ginsberg emphasized the importance of daycare facilities at Fort Sill. Daycare is still relatively modern, and was unheard of at the time she took advantage of it. Such facilities offer families with children, and particularly mothers with children, more freedom from the home, the chance to work, and even support themselves without reliance on a husband, or at least to bring in a second income.

The Justice also spoke briefly about United States v. Virginia, and was asked particularly about her relationship with Justice Scalia, who wrote a strong dissenting opinion to the decision. Justice Ginsburg spoke about her deep friendship with Justice Scalia throughout their time together on the bench, and

also how, even when they disagreed, their repartee helped them both become better writers and develop better opinions. According to Justice Ginsburg, Justice Scalia was active in helping her improve the majority opinion, and drafts of the majority opinion and the dissent went back and forth numerous times in chambers. It should be comforting to law students and writers everywhere that even some of the most brilliant minds in the country can still go through more than a dozen drafts for a piece of writing before publishing it.

Justice Ginsburg also spoke about feedback she received after the decision in United States v. Virginia, including a critical and sexist poem one critic sent to her about their presumed imagination of what a co-ed VMI would look like. Justice Ginsburg wrote back that he should wait and see. And, with her visit to Lexington and to VMI, she was able to see her decision in action.

After speaking at VMI, Justice Ginsburg graciously agreed to answer questions from students in a special session at the law school. The questions posed sought everything from scholarly insight to wisdom from a woman who spent her life shattering glass ceilings. And, of course, Justice Ginsburg did not fail to deliver.

When asked for advice for minority students entering a field not known for its diversity, Justice Ginsburg said that, while “there has been enormous progress toward greater inclusiveness,” we have not “reached Nirvana.” She suggested, as a starting point, to make the problems encountered by students from underrepresented backgrounds known in a non-confrontational way.

Other students wanted to know more about Justice Ginsburg’s relationship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. She described meeting him when they both were employed as professors. She attended a lecture that he had given, of which she described fondly, “I disagreed with almost everything.”

Unsurprisingly, she said that Marbury v. Madison was the case she considered the most important in Supreme Court jurisprudence. She said it “made the Supreme Court what it has become” and that establishing judicial review was “something no country in the world had ever done before.” Perhaps somewhat less expected, Justice Ginsburg also emphatically stated that “the law of nations is our law” when asked about the role of international law in court decisions.

When asked to describe the traits she would like to see in the next Supreme Court justice, she said that the new justice will need a “readiness to work really hard” in addition to a “willingness to listen to your colleagues” and a “sense of humor.” She also noted that it often takes “hours and hours” to get a thorough grasp of an issue.

Finally, Justice Ginsburg advised all law students—regardless of their career path—to do “something you’re passionate about.” She further explained this as something “outside of yourself,” adding that a true professional will use their talent for their community. Judging from the student questions and her thoughtful answers, Justice Ginsburg certainly seems to have bettered our community with her visit.

Categories: Features