RBG: The Power of Dissent and Telling Her Story

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I was in the audience some years ago when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave an interview during the Association of American Law Schools Annual Meeting. I also saw her when I attended oral arguments at the Supreme Court. She was a formidable jurist, lawyer, and academic. When I learned of her death, I could not help but think of how moments like this one cause us to remember where we were and what we were doing. I was frantically trying to meet my September 18 deadline to re-apply for promotion. When I learned of the news, I could not help but cry, for a moment. All the tension during the preparation of my application materials culminated with the news of her death. I started to think about her legacy and what she meant for many people in this nation. She paved the way for many of us to do what we do as professional women. During her many talks, Justice Ginsburg openly shared her experiences with job discrimination. I cannot help but think that, perhaps, those lived experiences fueled her sense of justice and injustice and the drive to right the wrongs she knew many women and other oppressed people face. She found ways to turn negative experiences into positive contributions and her life’s work. She helped so many, including when all she could do was write powerful dissenting opinions, such as in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company (2007), a case for sex discrimination under Title VII and the Equal Pay Act of 1963. The Equal Pay Act claims were dismissed on summary judgment at the district court level. Justice Ginsburg was the only woman on the Court at the time of that decision. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ginsburg made the case for the particular circumstances involved in pay disparity cases and why it was difficult for employees to meet the 180 days from the first paycheck disparity limitations period. She urged Congress to correct the majority decision. Her dissenting opinion led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first legislation enacted during the Obama Administration. She showed us that there is power in voicing dissent. I also appreciated Justice Ginsburg sharing about her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. They both acknowledged that they had no problem forging a personal relationship because they respected their disagreements on matters of law. During one of today’s news reports, Justice Scalia’s son said that the two diametrically opposed jurists helped each other through the writing of their majority versus dissenting opinions. Her story is full of lessons. As an academic, I foresee that a body of work will continue to develop from all the law review articles and books that will be written about her and her actions in furtherance of a more perfect union. She did her work. It is now up to all of us to continue with what remains undone, including telling the stories that must be told and litigating the cases that must be litigated, all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, even if we must wait for a dissenting opinion to lead to legislative action as in the Ledbetter case. Some of us will now show our dissent through our vote with the hope that it will turn into a majority vote. Aside from that, let’s make our work notorious in honor of the Notorious RBG!




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