By Brandon O'Connor
The line of cadets stretched from Eisenhower Hall almost to The Plain as they filed into the auditorium for the third annual Zengerle Family Lecture Series.
This year's speaker, U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her first visit to the U.S. Military Academy Thursday for a conversation with Dean of the Academic Board Brig. Gen. Cindy Jebb about her career in law and lifelong commitment to fighting for equal rights.
"It is an honor to share the stage with you, to get your inspirational insights and wisdom and perspective," Jebb said. "I know on behalf of the whole West Point community, this has been the thrill of a lifetime for us."
The 45-minute long conversation ranged from discussion about Ginsburg's time living at Fort Sill in Oklahoma along with her husband and young daughter in the 1950s to notable cases she argued before becoming a judge and her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"The schools on the post were integrated, but the schools in town were not. In fact, when we drove to Fort Sill, I saw a sign that I thought was 'Jack White's Cafe,' but it was 'Jack's White Café,'" Ginsburg, a native of New York, said of her initial impression of Oklahoma. "That degree of separation I had not experienced before. Even lower in that community status were the Indians."
It was during her time in Oklahoma that Ginsburg experienced the type of discrimination she would spend part of her law career fighting against as the general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
"I qualified to work as a claims adjuster for the Social Security Administration at Fort Sill," Ginsburg said. "I told the head of the office when I started that I was 3-months pregnant. He said, "Well, we can't place you as a GS-5 because you won't be able to go to Baltimore for training. So, we will list you as a GS-2 and you'll do the work of a GS-5.' It was also expected that when my child was born, I would leave. You can see why I am exhilarated by the change I have seen."
Ginsburg said she decided to become a lawyer while in college after a professor told her it was lawyers who were standing up for those being brought before Congress as part of the McCarthy Hearings. She was married with one child when she started law school at Harvard in 1956, and said the fact she had a young child at home at first made her hesitant to pursue a career in law.
"My father-in-law gave me some very good advice," she said. "I had misgivings because my child would be 14-months when I started law school. My father said, 'Ruth, if you don't want to be a lawyer and don't want to go to law school, no one will think less of you. But, if you do want to be a lawyer, you pick yourself up and you will find a way.' That was wonderful advice that I followed all my life. Do I want this enough? If I do, then I could find a way."
She eventually transferred to Columbia University where she graduated at the top of her class. Despite her high standing in her class, the fact Ginsburg was a woman kept her from receiving clerkships until a professor stepped in and helped her. Ginsburg said he offered to find a replacement clerk for the judge if she didn't work out, while threatening that if the judge didn't take her on, he would never recommend another Columbia law student to him.
"For women of my age, getting that first job was all important. If you got that job you did it usually at least as well as the men so getting the second job wasn't the same hurdle," Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg spent time working as a professor and as an attorney before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980 and eventually the Supreme Court in 1993. During her time as an attorney, Ginsburg played a key role in multiple cases that opened the door for women to have equal rights in the military. They included Susan Struck v. Secretary of Defense, which kept pregnancy from being a cause for discharge, Owens v. Brown, which struck down the ban of women on naval ships, and Frontiero v. Richardson, which determined that military benefits can't be different based on sex.
It was on while on the Court of Appeals that Ginsburg developed a friendship with fellow future Supreme Court Justice Scalia. Much of their careers saw them have differing opinions on the cases before them, but Ginsburg said although their opinions differed they respected each other and the other's views.
"Justice Scalia had a marvelous sense of humor. We were buddies first on the D.C. Circuit. There, we sat in panels of three so he would be sitting next to me. He would pass a note or whisper something that I had all I could do to avoid breaking out into hysterical laughter," she said. "I think it is very important for you to understand the other side's position. I understood, although I disagreed with it, I understood Scalia's originalist view."
Ginsburg will begin her 25th term on the Supreme Court Oct. 1. She said the justices will meet Monday to go over the possible cases that they may take up this term, which will continue into June or July. Ginsburg said one of the major cases that has stood out to her for this session is a capital murder case where an inmates competence to be executed has been brought into question due to multiple strokes he has suffered during his 30 years on death row.
"He also has suffered loss of memory," Ginsburg said. "It is beyond, the experts on both side agree, that he has no memory of this crime. He killed a police officer. He has no memory of it and the question is, is he competent to be executed. Is he morally culpable when he doesn't have any recollection of this?"
Ginsburg's speech Thursday was part of the Zengerle Family Lecture Series. Previous speakers in the series have included Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.