The Court that Ruth Built


It takes a rare character to achieve pop culture icon status while sporting a jabot. But if Ruth Bader Ginsburg is successfully pulling off effortlessly cool, it’s for the very reason that she isn’t trying to be anyone other than herself.

That Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become a Supreme Court Justice was anything but inevitable. Ginsburg has faced—and overcome—a lifetime of obstacles: from losing her mother when she was just a teenager, to simultaneously raising a baby, caring for an ailing husband and attending law school, to struggling to find employment, despite graduating top of her law school class, simply because she was a woman. Indeed, this might explain why her rigorous workouts, which have been widely chronicled, hardly seem to faze her. As with every other obstacle, she tackles her planks, push-ups and squats with grit, determination and methodical precision.

In fact, it’s the same approach that she has applied throughout her career. So although her icon status demonstrates her relevance more than anything else, what shouldn’t get lost amid all of the RBG action figures, t-shirts, comic books and nail art, is the rich judicial legacy that Ginsburg has built, and, she’ll be the first to point out, is still building. Her intellectual heft is, after all, more impressive than even her planks.

RBG,’ a documentary released this past summer, sketches the arc of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and career. The film—made up of interviews, footage of public appearances and historical material—offers an affectionate and admiring portrait of the Justice, with particular attention paid to her relationship with her late husband and the role she has played combating sex discrimination. (Note that if you are looking for comprehensive scrutiny of her judicial opinions, this is not the film for you.)

As a litigator, Ginsburg distinguished herself by elevating gender equality as its own jurisprudence through a series of sex-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She was pragmatic in her strategy, taking incremental steps to build a solid legal foundation that would ensure lasting, and not just immediate, change. She also knew her audience. In one case, she shrewdly demonstrated to the all-male Court that gender discrimination was harmful to men, as well as to women, when she represented a widower who had been denied Social Security benefits that would allow him to stay home with his infant son. The Court ruled unanimously in the widower’s favor.

She has had a similarly prodigious influence on the bench, and not just in decisions where she was a member of the majority. Few others have wielded so fully the power of an eloquent dissent. In fact, it was Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, that inspired the Notorious RBG Tumblr that elevated Ginsburg from merely respected to lionized.

She’s a colossal figure in pint-size packaging—which is likely some of her appeal. For those of us who know what it feels like to be underestimated, including because of our gender, there’s something satisfying in seeing the degree and reach of her influence. If some of the pop culture narrative appears to border on mythologizing, rest assured that she’s plenty formidable in real life, and the film is careful to prioritize substance over lore.

‘RBG’ is uplifting, lovingly drawn, and in no way short on inspirational moments. We asked some of the Debevoise lawyers and summer associates who attended a screening of the film which ones stood out for them.

Before there were male allies, there was Marty Ginsburg

“One thing that really stood out to me is how RBG’s husband supported her and actively participated in her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was highly successful in his own career and willingly put that aside to support her ambitions. Historically, that is something that a woman has been expected to do. But Marty Ginsburg’s actions show that we, as women in a demanding industry, can and should rely on our male allies in order to build successful careers and families. It’s an important reminder for me as I start my career.”

“She didn’t do small talk”

“More likely to be found poring over briefs than at a protest, Justice Ginsburg’s is a quiet power and ‘RBG’ wonderfully captures the paradox of reconciling her soft-spoken, well-mannered demeanor with her status as a trailblazer and feminist icon. ‘Quiet.’ ‘Timid.’ ‘Reserved.’ ‘She didn’t do small talk,’ says a childhood friend.  In a city known for schmoozing, blustering, and larger-than-life personalities, Ginsburg has built a formidable career on steadfastness, keen intellect, and an incomparable work ethic. And lest we mistake her unassuming nature for docility, the film provides a highlight reel of her most important cases and, yes, dissents.”

Trial by adversity

“My favorite part of the movie, although sad, was when the narrators discussed Justice Ginsburg’s struggles during law school, including balancing her role as a mother, caregiver to her sick husband, and law student in the face of gender discrimination. It really resonated with me to learn about how she excelled in law school in the face of adversity, which is definitely an experience I relate to as a woman of color studying the law today.”

Tough as nails

“One of my favorite moments in the film was watching RBG workout—I mean her planks looked better than mine! I know this seems silly, but as a female, a future lawyer, RBG is often deemed a superhero, and rightfully so. She fights tooth and nail for her beliefs, and just because she is RBG doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It was extremely humbling to see somebody I hold in such high regard work hard not just mentally, but physically as well. Not to mention, it offered some great comic relief as she quipped at her personal trainer that the workout was too easy.”

Aleena Aspervil, Nicole Blansett, Melanie Calera and Nicole Flores were summer associates at Debevoise in 2018.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.