VALE RUTH BADER GINSBURG (1933-2020)
“When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court? and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” ~ Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was much beloved and admired by many, but especially by women judges all over the world and well beyond her own jurisdiction. That was particularly so for Australian judges. Many from the AAWJ attended the IAWJ 2016 conference in Washington and heard her speak. Some may have been lucky enough to meet her. Those who were present will long remember the occasion and rejoice in our good fortune.
The photos in this article were taken at that memorable event. She truly was one of a kind.
What is it that makes her so beloved and admired around the world, relatively uncommon for jurists in their own country?
Well of course, at least one mainstream documentary about her life, and a movie based on it. Then there was her nomenclature as ‘The Notorious RBG’. But they followed her fame, and for women lawyers at least, didn’t
define it. Longevity on the Court played a role, but others stayed longer. Her history is a significant part, particularly her early days as a trailblazer for women against the odds; her hard work, intellect and indomitable spirit
which kept her succeeding in a man’s world. She referenced this, perhaps somewhat cheekily, when addressing Duke Law students. “The study of law was unusual for women of my generation,” she told them. “For most girls
growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.” Yet, if she had remained a member of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, we likely wouldn’t know her as well.
Her appointment to the Supreme Court, as only the second woman, and with her background in gender equality and women’s rights, was the right appointment for the times.
Later the shifting demographic of the Court meant that she became more of a dissenter than part of the majority. But just as with the Honourable Michael Kirby, noble dissent on contentious social issues can be more defining, and often takes courage and passion; she had them both. She said of this, “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view.
So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” She always stood for justice and equality and she spoke and conducted herself with grace and humility. When asked how she would like
to be remembered, she responded: “Someone who used whatever talent she
had to do her work to the very best of her ability, and to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.”
She never let noise around politics, criticism, or praise, affect or distract her. But she was proud of her stand on what she believed was right and never flinched. Nor was she afraid to be a little quirky – her collars exemplified that. Her diminutive physical stature only served to somehow emphasise her colossal contribution to the law.
We are the lesser for her passing, but the greater for knowing her. Hers is an example to be followed. In her own words: “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.”
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made. It shouldn’t be that women are the exception.”
RBG, ave atque vale!
– The Honourable Diana Byrant, AO QC & former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, for the Australian Association
of Women Judges.