Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.
Although Justice O'Connor probably would not have described herself as a feminist during her legal career, she was extremely bright and ambitious, yet was rejected by 40 law firms after graduating near the top of her class in 1952 from Stanford Law School because the firms "did not hire women lawyers." One doesn't have to identify as a feminist to consider this iniquitous. After holding a couple of government positions and staying home to raise her children, O'Connor entered the Arizona state senate in 1969, soon becoming the first female legislative majority leader in the United States. She kept a list of Arizona laws that treated the genders differently, and successfully worked to repeal or amend all of them. When O'Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981, she had been urging presidents to appoint a woman for 10 years. She believed that by entering public office, women would change society, and her life stands as proof.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg encountered the same barrier upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 1959. No firms would hire her, and numerous justices and judges (such as Felix Frankfurter, William Brennan, and Learned Hand) refused to take the brilliant graduate on as a law clerk. She eventually taught at Rutgers Law School and later Columbia Law. When students urged her to teach a course on Women and Law, Ginsburg studied what little had been written on the subject, later reporting that "her consciousness was awakened." Beginning in 1970, she won a number of significant cases involving gender-related discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court. She successfully challenged an Idaho law that automatically appointed men over women to administer a family member's estate; a federal law that automatically provided housing and medical benefits to military men, but required military women to first prove their husbands were dependent upon them in order to qualify; and a Social Security law denying survivor benefits to the husband of a woman who died in childbirth.
Sisters in Law describes the justices' youths, O'Connor growing up on a ranch in Arizona and Ginsburg in Brooklyn, New York. O'Connor became active in Republican politics; Ginsberg co-wrote the first case book and co-founded the first law reporter on gender discrimination law. In 1980, O'Connor was elevated to the Arizona Court of Appeals and Ginsberg to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. Later that year, President Ronald Reagan nominated O'Connor to replace Justice Potter Stewart. One of the first cases she heard was a challenge to the Mississippi University for Women's exclusion of men from its nursing school. Justice O'Connor broke a 4-4 tie and wrote an opinion affirming the trial court's order directing the school to admit men to its program, foreshadowing her eventual role as the swing vote on hard cases, which began with the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell in 1987. The author observes that O'Connor used concurrences to "make the conservative rulings more liberal and the liberal opinions more conservative."
President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth Bader Ginsberg to replace Justice Byron White in 1992. There followed opinions by O'Connor and Ginsberg on numerous cases involving gender discrimination, always characterized by mutual respect if not always agreement. The author describes the legal issues involved in those cases in terms that are understandable to the layperson yet not oversimplified for attorneys. She provides interesting accounts of practices used in the Supreme Court to process cases, and some gossip about relations between justices. After O'Connor retired in 2006, Justice Ginsberg said she was "lonely" being the only woman on the bench until President Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor in 2009.
It is fairly apparent that the author is more of a fan of Justice Ginsberg than of Justice O'Connor, but perhaps this is understandable in light of the book's chosen theme, in that gender equality has been Ginsberg's lifelong cause, and she has written far more on it than has O'Connor. The reader comes away with a solid understanding of the development of gender-discrimination law in the Supreme Court and the positive impact that Justices O'Connor and Ginsberg have had in the area, although they have approached it from different points on the political spectrum.
Ellen B. Gwynn is the assistant attorney general in the opinions section of the Office of the Attorney General in Tallahassee.
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|Author:||Gwynn, Ellen B.|
|Publication:||Florida Bar Journal|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2016|
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