Champion of Equity
January 2021 DEI Article
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: An Inspirational Champion of Equity”
Written by Bobby T. Rimas, Associate Professor
United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was unique in that she symbolized an inspirational champion of equity. Ginsburg not only had a very influential impact within the legal profession, but also within a nation where many inequities were once considered the accepted way of life. Ginsburg often successfully challenged such inequities as a professor, lawyer, and judge. Ginsburg herself was constantly on the receiving end of discrimination: at an Ivy League law school during the 1950s where the student population was predominately male; in the legal profession where many law firms would not hire her as an attorney even though she was well qualified; and at a university where her pay was less than her male colleagues.
Despite the role that discrimination played in Ginsburg’s life, she moved forward with teaching law at several universities, co-authored a book on discrimination law, and as an attorney and director, advocated for equality at the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. While at the ACLU during the 1970s, Ginsburg argued six cases that dealt with gender discrimination before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of women and men. In one of those cases, Weinberger v. Weisenfeld (1975), Ginsburg represented a male who was being discriminated against because as a widower, the Social Security Act only allowed his surviving children to receive benefits. The Court unanimously agreed that a particular section of the Social Security Act “…discriminates among surviving children solely on the basis of the sex of the surviving parent.” Many instances – such as the examples above – made the supreme court of the land recognize that institutionalized inequities were written into law and were, in fact, unjust. The cases Ginsburg took on as an attorney and as a judge often struck at the heart of inequality.
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) was a milestone case where the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that Lilly Ledbetter suffered pay inequity based on her gender, yet narrowly decided in a 5-4 decision that Ledbetter’s claim was not valid since it was “untimely.” More specifically, the majority of the Court decided that such a claim needed to be filed “180 days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” As a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg led the dissent, arguing that “Consequently, although the unlawful conduct began in the past, ‘a charge may be filed at a later date and still encompass the whole.’” The dissent also pointed out:
“The problem of concealed pay discrimination is particularly acute where the disparity arises not because the female employee is flatly denied a raise but because male counterparts are given larger raises. Having received a pay increase, the female employee is unlikely to discern at once that she has experienced an adverse employment decision. She may have little reason even to suspect discrimination until a pattern develops incrementally and she ultimately becomes aware of the disparity. Even if an employee suspects that the reason for a comparatively low raise is not performance but sex (or another protected ground), the amount involved may seem too small, or the employer’s intent too ambiguous, to make the issue immediately actionable–or winnable.”
The impact of Ledbetter’s loss and Ginsburg’s pointed dissent eventually culminated into the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (Ledbetter Act) of 2009, the first signed legislation of United States President Barack Obama. The Ledbetter Act resets the 180-day period to file a claim with each new paycheck. During the Ledbetter Act signing ceremony at the White House, President Obama said:
“…there are no second-class citizens in our workplaces, and that it’s not just unfair and illegal – but bad for business – to pay someone less because of their gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion or disability. And that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory, or footnote in a casebook – it’s about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives…and whether we’re truly living up to our fundamental ideals. Whether we’ll do our part, as generations before us, to ensure those words put to paper more than 200 years ago really mean something – to breathe new life into them with the more enlightened understandings of our time…I sign this bill for my daughters, and all those who will come after us, because I want them to grow up in a nation that values their contributions, where there are no limits to their dreams and they have opportunities their mothers and grandmothers never could have imagined.”
Today, we see the many inequities in our country laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic that still need to be addressed, such as the multiple reasons why communities of color are much more negatively impacted when compared to other communities, economic disparities, access to healthcare, justice, and food insecurity. Such situations remind us individually how we may utilize our profession to address such issues as stated several times by Ginsburg: “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community…” The lifework and contributions of Ginsburg reminds many that we must continually oppose discrimination in all forms, just as she did. Cheers to the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion of equity.