Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg @Getty
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg addressed Sciences Po students on their graduation day in July 2009, the law school was in its earliest beginnings. Yet, although our students were not among those fortunate enough to have seen and heard her in person, almost all of them will have encountered Justice Ginsburg through her opinions and dissents, in their courses in human rights law, law and gender, or intellectual property law (a subject on which she wrote several key opinions of the Supreme Court). Her writing offers a lesson to all students and scholars of law: it is at once concise, simple, persuasive, and opinionated, with striking and well-chosen metaphors (she credited her European literature professor, Vladimir Nabokov, with teaching her how to write). An example is her fierce dissent to the majority opinion of the Court in Shelby County v Holder (2013), in which she wrote that dismantling the Voting Rights Act would be "like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
Beyond what has been said in the media in recent days about her struggles in a number of landmark cases on women’s rights and equality, against discrimination of all kinds, and more recently in favour of the right of all US citizens to vote (one of her very last dissents was on the question of absentee ballots, which she refused to see as a merely technical matter), Justice Ginsburg’s practice of law was not a crusade but a fight for the just application of the law. This is perfectly illustrated by a footnote in one of her dissenting opinions, against a ruling of the Court which upheld the right of for-profit corporations to exercise their right to religious freedom so as to refuse to cover the use of contraceptives by their employees (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 2014). In her dissent, she argued that the issue was not one of ethics or morality, but one of law and individual rights: "Right or wrong in this domain is a judgment no Member of this Court, or any civil court, is authorized or equipped to make. What the Court must decide is not "the plausibility of a religious claim", but whether accommodating that claim risks depriving others of rights accorded them by the laws of the United States."
Another important lesson for our law students appears at the end of the lecture she gave on that graduation day in 2009, when she instructed the new graduates to "try to leave tracks. Use the education you have received to help repair tears in your communities. Take part in efforts to move those communities, your Nation, and our world closer to the conditions needed to ensure the health and well-being of your generation and generations following your own."
She herself was a remarkable example of this lesson. The law school mourns the loss of such a great lady (which was what her mother told her to be in order to prove her independence) and such an outstanding lawyer and scholar. Our sincere condolences go to her family, and notably to her daughter Jane Ginsburg, Professor at Columbia Law School, and an internationally renowned scholar of intellectual property, who has been teaching comparative copyright law in our Master in Economic Law since 2018.
Excerpt of Justice Ginsburg's keynote speech at the 2009 Graduation Ceremony: