Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg headlines Thomas Jefferson Law School Women and Law Conference

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Last Friday, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke at the 13th Annual Women and Law Conference at Thomas Jefferson Law School. A packed house listened as panelists discussed a variety of issues relating to women in the judiciary, and the highlight of the day was an extended and candid Q&A with Justice Ginsburg herself.

Justice Ginsburg spoke at moderate length on the unfortunate politicization of the confirmation process. She noted that, “I hope for the day that we can get back to where the system was when I was nominated in 1993. There was a true bi-partisan spirit prevailing in our Congress. We are heading in the wrong direction. We need to reverse gears and go back to the time when there was bi-partisan support for the president’s nominees. I wonder if the president would even nominate me now with my longtime affiliation with the ACLU. During my confirmation, not one Senator asked me about it.”

Justice Ginsburg was also very clear about the need for women on the bench, emphasizing that women judges bring perspective that the court otherwise lacks, and that a commitment to equality requires more than just tokenism. She spoke of how, during her first year on the bench, lawyers would refer to her as Justice O’Connor, although they look nothing alike. But in recent years, the confirmation of additional women Justices has changed the dynamic of the Court.

Justice Ginsburg also gave background on a fascinating case from her days at the ACLU, ultimately involving a woman’s right not to have an abortion. A military servicewoman became pregnant, and the military ordered her to terminate the pregnancy or leave the base. The ACLU took her case, and was successful in defending the woman’s choice. Afterwards, Justice Ginsburg asked the woman if there was anything else that she wanted, and she replied, “I’d love to do flight training.” And they both just laughed at the impossibility of such an idea. But today, women can receive flight training; and in fact the female TJSL student on the Q&A panel was a military pilot prior to law school. My, how times have changed.

The rest of the conference was also fantastic.

Keynote speaker Susan Williams discussed the intersection of gender equality and constitutional law issues in developing nations, with a particular emphasis on Liberia. She noted that sometimes legal scholars fail to notice the ways in which customary law reinforces gender stereotypes, and she argued that achieving gender equality will require advocates to address issues in customary law.

An excellent slate of speakers gave very insightful talks on other issues relating to women on the bench. For instance, Professor Carla Pratt (who is also a Justice of the Standing Rock Sioux) spoke about how Sioux courts incorporate Native traditions in decisionmaking, to illustrate the importance of women’s voices on the bench. Professor Nienke Grossman presented an eye-opening discussion of the disturbing lack of women in international tribunals, along with some startling numbers on international courts (basically, there are very few or no women on _any_ of them, in 2013, which is mind-boggling). Scholars and jurists from Brazil, France, and China discussed the ongoing development of women’s rights worldwide. And political scientist and lawyer Sally Kenney set out specific action points for how to improve representation of women judges.

I was delighted to attend such a wonderful event. Congratulations to TJSL professors Julie Cromer Young and Meera Deo for organizing the event. Additional reporting on the conference, as well as conference video, is available here. It was great seeing so many leading feminist legal scholars and advocates at the Women and Law Conference, and I hope to see some of you at Women and Law next year.

(Cross-posted at Concurring Opinions).

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