Justice Ginsburg Tells Graduating Students to “Make Things Better”

February 5, 2015 —

The Class of 2015 warmly welcomed Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Georgetown Law February 4 for the second annual Dean’s Lecture to the Graduating Class. Dean William M. Treanor led the conversation with the justice in a packed Hart Auditorium, gleaning insights on Ginsburg’s career, cases, passion for opera and loving memories of her late husband, longtime Georgetown Law Professor Martin D. Ginsburg. 

Encouraged to study law during her undergraduate years at Cornell, Ginsburg by 1956 was one of nine women (and 500-plus men) in her first-year Harvard Law class. “The women in my class felt that [we] were literally on trial … that all eyes were on us,” she noted. “That if we failed, if we gave a bad answer to a question, we would be failing not only for ourselves, but for all women.”

Though Ginsburg was at the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia Law School, where she later transferred, a determined law professor had to call numerous federal judges to help her get a clerkship. “Several of them could overcome the fact that I was a woman, but none of them that I was the mother of a four-year-old…” she said, noting that she overcompensated to prove herself as a clerk. 

Though she was later offered positions with law firms, Ginsburg joined the faculty at Rutgers Law as a much-needed voice on women’s equality, starting with the issue of equal pay for women professors. She continued the fight as lawyer for the ACLU, working on matters including Reed v. Reed, a landmark equal protection case, and on Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which a husband who had lost his wife in childbirth asked for the same Social Security benefits as widows get to care for his infant son. “That was our illustration to the Court that gender discrimination is bad for everyone,” Ginsburg said.

Today, of course, Ginsburg serves on that Court with two female colleagues, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. “People ask me sometimes … when will there be enough women on the Court? And my answer is, ‘When there are nine.’”

The Class of 2015 then quizzed the justice on topics ranging from reproductive rights to effective advocacy. The one case the justice would overturn? Citizens United. “One day sensible restrictions on campaign financing will be the law of this land,” she said. “It will happen.”

In her career advice to the graduates, Ginsburg highlighted the importance of service to others. “Yes, you need a job. But if you don’t do something outside yourself, something … that will make life a little better for other people, you’re not really a true professional…” she said. “[Take your] talent and education and use it to make things better.”

A webcast is available here. The event may also be viewed on C-SPAN, which carried it live. 

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