Stanford Law’s Jane Schacter Remembers Justice Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg’s historic role in shaping the jurisprudence of constitutional sex discrimination law is both singular and secure as a part of her legacy. She was the architect of the Supreme Court’s modern case law on gender and equality, and had the unique role of shaping that law as both an advocate before she joined the Court, and as a justice. Her majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, the 1996 case striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to admit women, is a particularly significant reflection of her approach.

Jane S. Schacter
Stanford Law Professor Jane S. Schacter

I often play for students the oral argument presented to the Court by “Mrs. Ginsburg” in Frontiero v. Richardson, a 1973 case about a law making it harder for women serving in the military to get certain spousal benefits than it was for male service members. At the time, she was a law professor and lawyer for the ACLU. She wrote an amicus brief in that case arguing that sex, like race, should be a suspect classification and therefore largely off limits for the government to consider in allocating benefits and burdens. Most of the time, amici are not permitted to present oral argument, but she was given time at the podium in this case. It is striking to hear her lucidly and powerfully make the case to the all-male bench that women’s opportunities should not be determined by gender stereotypes. Unlike the male lawyers in the case who argued before and after her, she received no questions from the justices. Listening to the argument, one wonders if the justices knew quite what to do with her arguments. She later said she viewed her role in the case as teaching the justices and giving them a perspective that had probably never occurred to some of them. Her argument was about ten minutes long and it is well worth hearing.

Over the course of her career, Justice Ginsburg taught the country so much about sex discrimination, equality, and a long list of other issues. The icon she became gave her the ability to bring her insights to a wider audience. Justice Ginsburg’s career was one for the ages, and the lessons she taught so many of us will long endure.

Read Stanford Law Faculty on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy