A number of Atlanta’s Jewish lawyers reacted dramatically when they learned that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on erev Rosh Hashanah last week.
“Everyone will remember where they were when they heard the news,” said Michael Rosenzweig. He was eating dinner when his wife, Dr. Shelli Bank, received a text and announced, “This is horrible news.”
Rosenzweig first knew of Ginsburg when he was a student at Columbia Law School where she taught. He later met her when he was the founding CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Although Rosenzweig never had Ginsburg for a teacher, the years 1973 to 1976 when he was a student at Columbia, overlapped with the years Ginsburg argued six major gender discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning five of them. It was in 1973 that she founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ginsburg “was the one who crafted the strategy in those cases,” said Rosenzweig, who noted that even then she was known as a “rock star,” changing important laws. “Everyone at Columbia knew what she was doing. You felt like you were witnessing historical developments.”
That was probably most true for her students at the time, one of whom was Atlanta attorney Elizabeth Appley. “It was just a few years after she got tenure and a short time before she went to the bench in Washington, D.C.,” said Appley, a sole practitioner who was a law student between 1975 and 1978. “She was a great teacher and a brilliant person. She spoke slowly, softly and kindly. Nothing about her was rough. The students hung on every word.” She didn’t use the Socratic method of teaching, unlike how movies often portray law professors, Appley said.
One of the classes Appley took of Ginsburg’s was a seminar on gender discrimination and “she’d written the book on gender discrimination,” Appley said.
After Ginsburg led the legal battles that established the foundation for the current legal prohibitions against sex discrimination and helped lay the groundwork for women’s rights advocacy, she was appointed in 1981 by President Jimmy Carter to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She was nominated for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, becoming only the second woman to be appointed a justice of the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed her nomination to the Supreme Court 96 to 3.
According to Appley, it was the method that Ginsburg used to incrementally change the laws that allowed sexual discrimination that became “a model for me and my career and how I’ve advocated” for clients. “I came to Atlanta to practice law to pursue changes in the law to make the world a better place,” Appley told the AJT.
Rosenzweig never intended to become a litigator – rather, choosing transactional, corporate law – so he wasn’t as impacted by Ginsburg as was Appley. However, while he was the CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History on Independence Mall in Philadelphia, he recounted meeting Ginsburg.
When the museum opened, it showcased 18 Jewish Americans who had made remarkable achievements. One of those was Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who served on the court from 1916 to 1939. “We did a short film on each of the 18, and we wanted to interview people in the same discipline. Ginsburg knew Brandeis, so I went to her chamber for the filmmaking and we talked a little.”
Rosenzeig recalls Ginsburg pointing out that Brandeis was known for his dissenting opinions, opinions that could ultimately become law when his side was on the majority in the court. “That made her hopeful,” he said, also remembering how during the interview for the film she was clutching a copy of the constitution.
Like many in the Atlanta Jewish community, Rosenzweig said he is “absolutely bereft at her passing. It’s a personal loss and a huge, huge loss for the country. I am profoundly concerned about the political ramifications.”
Similarly, Appley said that the “best outcome that we can hope for is that the person elected president on Nov. 3 would be allowed to choose her successor.” Appley pointed to several important cases coming up before the Supreme Court, including hearing arguments on a case centered on the Affordable Care Act on Nov. 10.
Appley suggested that perhaps Ginsburg’s death could finally help motivate the passing of the Equal Rights Amendment. “It’s long past due for the constitution to recognize that women and men are equal before the law.”
Ultimately, Appley emphasized, Ginsburg was a “trailblazer, but she was also a moderate. She was an incrementalist in a lot of ways. She clearly made a substantive difference as a lawyer and a judge in advocating for women, men, the LGBQT community” and all minorities. “She wanted to protect the rights of individuals that are contained in the Bill of Rights.”
To mark the passing of a national icon, a candlelight vigil was held Sept 20 at the Supreme Court of Georgia building in downtown Atlanta. NCJW is planning a march Oct. 2, the end of the shiva period for the Jewish leader.