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RBG: Legal community recalls a trailblazer

Kevin Featherly//September 21, 2020

RBG: Legal community recalls a trailblazer

Kevin Featherly//September 21, 2020

Correction: This article has been revised to correct the spelling of Sheila Engelmeier’s surname and to repair a typographical error in that item.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the U.S. Supreme Court justice, died on Friday at age 87.

A trailblazing lawyer, U.S. Court of Appeals judge and Supreme Court justice, her historic 1971 brief in Reed v. Reed helped U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger’s all-male court find—for first time in U.S. history—that a state law had violated the Equal Protection Clause because it discriminated against women.

The decision led to hundreds of legislative changes nationwide. But the court did not find—as Ginsburg and the brief’s co-author, ACLU Director Mel Wulf, had hoped—that the law defined women as a “suspect class.” That finding would have put sex discrimination on the legal level of race discrimination.

For Ginsburg, that only meant she had more work to do. So she spent a lifetime doing it.

After her death, Minnesota Lawyer reached out to members of the state’s legal community to ask a single question:

What, to you, is most important about the trail that RBG blazed?

Here are their responses:

Lorie Gildea
Chief justice, Minnesota Supreme Court

Justice Ginsburg helped to open doors for women and she understood the importance of collegiality. Serving on an appellate court requires that individual judges and justices confer together as a body, respect each other’s opinions and appreciate each other’s input. It was clear that Justice Ginsburg did that and that she valued her relationships with others on the court.

Keith Ellison
Minnesota Attorney General

The fact is she did not accept the status quo. She knew that discrimination on the basis of sex was wrong, and so she focused her energy on changing it—and she did. It’s so easy to go along, even with things that you know are not right, because that’s what most people are doing. So for somebody to have the vision, foresight and fortitude that she demonstrated is extraordinary. And that’s why I admire her so much. I’m very sad we lost her.

Erica MacDonald
Minnesota’s U.S. Attorney

Last Friday, the world lost a true legal great. Justice Ginsburg was a true inspiration not just to women in the legal profession but to women everywhere. She was a brilliant litigator, a well-respected Court of Appeals judge, a profoundly inspirational Supreme Court Justice, and a devoted wife and mother. She was good humored, tenacious and, above all, authentic. We still have a way to go for women to achieve true equality, but Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy have shown us the path forward.

Melissa Hortman
Minnesota House speaker, attorney

There are so many things to appreciate about Justice Ginsburg, but perhaps the most important thing she showed us was that in order to win the monumental fights, you have to dig in and work nearly every single day, for decades, if that’s what it takes. She plotted out a long-term strategy to change the course of women’s rights and stuck to it, and accomplished tremendous change in this country. Her work shows that monumental change often comes one step at a time.

Susan Segal
Minnesota Court of Appeals chief judge

Justice Ginsburg was a “velvet hammer,” a brilliant and fierce warrior in a lace collar and gloves. With grace, determination and more than a little patience, she opened the horizons for women and girls, and in so doing brought us closer to the ideals of our constitution and raised up opportunity for all of us.

Christopher Dietzen
Former state Supreme Court justice, Sentencing Guidelines commissioner

Like the rest of the legal profession, I mourn the loss of this truly remarkable woman and jurist. She was a champion for human rights, a strong advocate for her point of view on cases before the court and a powerful role model for other women in the legal profession.

Perhaps her most endearing quality was that she and the late Justice [Antonin] Scalia were willing to set aside personal differences and develop a strong and warm friendship. This quality captures the grace and character of both jurists.

Paul Anderson
Former state Supreme Court justice

What stands out is her approach to the law from the perspective of a woman. Some people say—I think [former Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor said an old man and an old woman decide things the same way. No. Absolutely not! Justice Ginsburg brought with herself to the court the experiences that she had as a woman. She was discriminated against. And she was committed to the idea of equal protection under the law and that applied to sex. So she brought a very, very valuable perspective to the court. [Reflecting on RBG’s Reed v. Reed brief:] That was 1971. Think about that, that’s almost 50 years ago! That is other thing that strikes you about her. She was so far ahead of the rest of the society in her thinking. The society has caught up with her and agrees with her. I mean, in the last case where they talked about that, even [Justice Neil] Gorsuch was buying into the whole idea of equality on the basis of sex.

Edward Cleary
Former Minnesota Court of Appeals chief judge

She was an outstanding litigator and masterful strategist who, case by case, convinced a then all-male Supreme Court to recognize equal protection in the context of treating the sexes equally. That she was able to do so is a testament to her intelligence and tenacity.

Melisa Franzen
DFL state senator, attorney

She taught us the trail is always being built upon. She made equality and justice her career. Her death reminds us what a pivotal moment we are living in and to continue the fight for equity under the law.

Charles N. Nauen
Co-lead counsel, Lockridge Grindal Nauen, P.L.L.P.

It’s a sad day. We were just starting our celebration of Rosh Hashanah when we got the news. What a way to start 5781 [the Jewish New Year].

For me, the most important thing was how she blazed the trail for women—always positive, energetic, strong, brilliant, optimistic and real. She was so very down to earth. You knew she was one of a kind, yet you felt she could be your friend and colleague.

My wife is a lawyer, we have two daughters, our firm is 50/50 women and men. She is a constant inspiration to all of us.

Beth Forsythe
Partner; Government Enforcement/Corporate Investigations co-chair, Dorsey & Whitney

RBG reinforced what we’ve known for centuries: Lawyers are on the front lines in the fight for human dignity and equality. But the trail she blazed, as one of the first nationally prominent female lawyers, was proving women lawyers have a deserving and necessary place in that fight.

Sheila Engelmeier
Minneapolis employment law attorney

RBG was an intellectual giant, whose legal savvy was unparalleled. She was smart enough to challenge statutes that unfairly limited men’s rights to change gender equity jurisprudence. Through her tireless advocacy, she dragged the United States court system into acknowledging that gender-based disparate treatment must not be tolerated. And, by her actions, she showed she walked the walk of treating others equally despite our differences.

Her best friend on the Court–Antonin Scalia–could not have been any more different ideologically than she. Yet, she looked past those differences and they found the good in one another. The world would be a better place if there were more people and judges like RBG. There will never be another Notorious RBG. But, maybe we can at least strive to emulate her intellect, unwavering effort (often in the face of tremendous obstacles) and kindness towards others.

My heart is broken.

Kelly Mitchell
Sentencing Guidelines Commissioner chair, Robina Institute executive director

Justice Ginsberg’s work on gender equality is what I find most meaningful. The work she did both in daring to be a lawyer as a woman and in litigating cases made it possible for me to grow up never questioning that I could do whatever I wanted to do and be whatever I wanted to be.

Theresa Bevilacqua
Partner, Dorsey & Whitney

Justice Ginsburg was so respected and transcended differences in our political ideology because she brought to her entire legal career unparalleled tenacity, thoughtfulness and dedication to the principle of equality before the law. She modeled how a woman from humble beginnings could reach the apex of a male-dominated profession through sheer will, determination and grit. Justice Ginsburg left an indelible mark on generations of women leaders, lawyers and mothers, and will be greatly missed.

Lola Velazquez-Aguilu
Attorney; former chair, Judicial Selection Commission

Notwithstanding the challenges that women in the legal profession face even in 2020, I cannot imagine facing the challenges that awaited Justice Ginsburg upon her own graduation.  It is because of her that I have the privilege to say that her experience is truly unimaginable to me. What she did for women is undeniable but let us not forget what she also did for people with disabilities in Olmsted v. L.C.; or for the LGBTQ community with her consistent support in cases like Lawrence v. Texas, Obergefell v. Hodges, and Bostock v. Clayton County. Her notoriety as the Notorious RBG is no surprise given that someone so small, was so mighty, and gave voice to so many.

 Gov. Tim Walz

Few Americans have done as much for the cause of equality as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She broke glass ceilings at every turn. She envisioned and implemented a humane and progressive interpretation of the law. She changed this country for the better.

Amy Bergquist
Senior Staff Attorney, International Justice Program; former clerk for Justice Ginsburg

I cannot think of a single person who has done more to transform the status of women and girls in our country, both through the law and through personal example. For those of us who seek to use the law to advance the cause of justice, as she did throughout her life, Justice Ginsburg taught us that we often need to approach our work with a view to the long game. Sometimes, as in the Lilly Ledbetter case, the courts are unable or unwilling to achieve a just result, and in those circumstances Justice Ginsburg did not hesitate to call on the elected branches of government to take up the baton. To her, writing for the dissent was often not a defeat but a temporary setback, planting the seeds for more profound societal change.


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