RBG and the Girls

By John Q. Barrett

November 25, 2020

RBG and the Girls


By John Q. Barrett

Connecticut lawyer Allison Near with her daughters greeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Behind Near is her mother, Tennessee lawyer Rebecca Murray. (Photo: John Q. Barrett)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court of the United States for 27 years. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 42, she also served as the Court’s Second Circuit Justice, which meant that she was responsible for receiving and handling emergency requests and other matters from the courts in that circuit. (Each justice serves as circuit justice for at least one circuit.)

As Second Circuit Justice, Justice Ginsburg participated annually in the Circuit’s Judicial Conference. That gathering usually occurs in May or June, as the Supreme Court is finalizing all of its opinions for that year’s term, handing them down, and heading for its summer recess. It is an especially demanding time for each justice.

Justice Ginsburg nonetheless would graciously attend the Second Circuit Conference, usually held in New Paltz or in Saratoga Springs. Those are not convenient locations for someone who lives in Washington, D.C. and needs to get back to work there ASAP.

At the Second Circuit Conference, Justice Ginsburg typically delivered an address on the Supreme Court’s decisions as of that late point in its term. She often included a scorecard report on “how the Second Circuit is doing” in terms of the Court of Appeals being affirmed or reversed.

In June 2018, the Second Circuit Conference was held in Saratoga Springs. Justice Ginsburg, by then celebrated widely as a trailblazer for justice, a national treasure, and “The Notorious RBG,” was a big part of the program. On June 14, the post-dinner entertainment for the Circuit’s judges and hundreds of lawyers and other guests was a showing of the new documentary film “RBG.”   If Justice Ginsburg was “in the house” that night, she stayed in her room, no doubt working on draft opinions.

The next day, June 15, the conference consumed more than two hours of Justice Ginsburg’s time and performing energy. She first was interviewed, sitting alongside Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., whose participation was an obvious tribute to Justice Ginsburg, by U.S. Senior Circuit Judge Pierre N. Leval and U.S. District Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto. It was a lively, interesting conversation. The large audience in the conference center ballroom was delighted.

Then Justice Ginsburg went to the podium (which was nearly her height). She delivered her annual report lecture, again holding the crowd’s attention, in part because she did not speak loudly.

When Justice Ginsburg finished her lecture, she received a standing ovation. Then she departed out the back doors of the room.

About 15 minutes later, after the conference had concluded, I walked through the building’s back corridor toward the exit. I happened upon Justice Ginsburg and her security detail.

I saw, standing between the justice and the door 50 feet away, a lawyer, her two daughters, her mother, and others.   They were, in effect, standing outside the stage door, hoping to see Justice Ginsburg. Her security team was trying to hustle her along, but she was not famous for her foot speed. I got ahead of them. The lawyer asked me if it would be okay for her to introduce her daughters to the justice. I said, presumptuously, that it would be. (A security guard also gave his approval.)

I was righter than I knew. Justice Ginsburg soon intersected with the girls. She stopped to talk to them. They were star-struck—really frozen. Their mother looked on, beaming.

Justice Ginsburg crooked a finger at one of her security men, who had stepped back to let the justice talk with the girls. He came forward, bringing her “I Dissent” tote bag, which she showed to the girls.

A third girl, seeing all of this, then stepped confidently into the action. She and Justice Ginsburg had a back-and-forth conversation. The justice straightened up despite her osteoporosis and smiled widely. She asked questions, and the young self-advocate made her case.

Yes, I pulled out my phone and took photographs. I captured glimpses of impact, of progress, of greatness.

I felt some tears in my eyes then. I get more now, as I think about the moment and look at these photographs.

On behalf of every person, women first among us, who your lawyering and judging helped to get the equal treatment and unlimited opportunity that is the United States at its legal and moral core: Thank you, Justice Ginsburg.

John Q. Barrett is Professor of Law at St. John’s University, where he teaches constitutional law and legal history, and the Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow at the Robert H. Jackson Center. He writes the Jackson List, http://thejacksonlist.com/, which has included two essays this year on Justice Ginsburg.

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