Polk County Bar Association
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P: (515) 243-3904

October 1, 2022

image of Ruth Bader GinsburgBy Roxanne Conlin

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, very few women practiced law. Even fewer women lawyers practiced employment and civil rights law. Therefore, we all knew one another. Communication then was much more difficult than communication now. Nonetheless, we stayed in touch by letter and phone to discuss cases, legal issues and law development. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was our leader. She made each of us feel valued, included and understood.

In 1973, I was invited to author a law review article on the Equal Rights Amendment. The Equal Rights Amendment was initially proposed shortly after the passage of women’s suffrage but languished in Congress for decades until 1972 when it was passed out of Congress. In 1975, 35 of the necessary 38 states had passed it, but the final three states proved to be elusive. I realized I needed help to tone down my passionate support of the Equal Rights Amendment. I turned to Ruth Bader Ginsburg and asked her to review my work. She kindly agreed. As I finished each section, I would ship it off by snail mail. Depending on the time of year, it would take weeks or even a month to get my work back – with red corrections all over it! She would often include a note filled with grace and humor to soften the blows.

Sometimes, I would call her, and we would discuss her suggestions. Usually, she would persuade me that she was right and I was wrong. We proceeded back and forth for about two years. Over that time, I came to know her brilliance, but what stays with me today is how funny she was. Even the harshest criticism was couched in a witty comment. How I wish I had saved her notes!

The article, called “Equal Protection Versus Equal Rights Amendment – Where Are We Now,” was published in the Drake Law Review in the winter of 1975. I credited her help on the first page saying, “The author also wishes to express her appreciation to Ruth Ginsburg, professor of law at Columbia University, for her review of the manuscript.”

In 1977, the University of Iowa Law School asked me to come over to Iowa City once a week and teach a seminar on Women and the Law, the first such course ever offered at an Iowa law school and one of the first in the nation. Ruth was co author of a case book on women and the law that was perfect for this course. The seminar was designed with 15 students in mind, but I felt strongly that every lawyer should have at least a basic understanding of the subject matter. I, therefore, accepted everyone who applied. I usually had 40 to 50 students. Such great interest may have been generated when it was widely circulated that I was an easy grader.

After she joined the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1980, and then the Supreme Court in 1993, I would only occasionally see her in passing at social, legal events in New York City and Washington, DC. But I got the honor of my life, when in 2004, I got an award named for her, from her. In New York City in 2004, she introduced me to a crowded room of mostly attorneys in the most flattering terms. She then sat in the front row and listened to my speech on “My Clients, My Heroes.” She smiled and nodded throughout the speech. Of the thousands of speeches I have given in my life, this was the most uplifting to me because she was there.

I don’t remember if we saw each other after that. Of course, I read every opinion of hers with awe. Her incisive intelligence and clarity of thought were apparent in each of them. Toward the end of her service, many of those opinions were in dissent. I was persuaded by them and disappointed that the rights she fought for her whole career were being chipped away and are now on the brink of being utterly destroyed.

She stayed in the battle as long as she possibly could. She was my friend, my mentor and my inspiration. Every person in this country has been protected by her life’s work. She deserves our eternal gratitude. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg devoted her whole life to bending that arc toward justice. We are made infinitely poorer by her loss, but we are infinitely richer for her presence in our lives for nearly nine decades.

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