Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Parallel Between Disability and Women’s Rights

This past Monday I attended a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Bar Association, featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA Notorious R.B.G.). Justice Ginsburg was asked about her quote that “Impediments turn out to be good fortune.” She elaborated that if she and the other female Supreme Court Justices did not face the adversity and discrimination that they encountered in employment, they probably would be retired law firm partners by now, instead of shaping the direction of the U.S. legal system on the Supreme Court.

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from

Justice Ginsburg graduated in the top of her Columbia Law School class, after transferring from Harvard, where she was also in law review. However, upon graduating, she had difficulty finding employment. She clerked for Justice Edmund Louis Palmieri, who preferred clerks from Columbia. She later learned that a Dean at Columbia pressured Justice Palmieri to hire her, threatening to dissuade Columbia students from clerking with him. She subsequently went on to do gender rights work for the ACLU and taught at Rutgers Law School before her D.C. District Court judgeship and her current Supreme Court tenure.

She hid her pregnancy to avoid discrimination during her professorship. She shared that she had three strikes against her: (1) that she was a woman, (2) that she was Jewish when Jewish attorneys were not accepted, and (3) that she was a mother. She explained that being a mother was her biggest perceived problem; she would be distracted should something happen to her children.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

Hearing Justice Ginsburg’s experiences with discrimination resonated with me and my struggles to find employment. The combination of having a disability, being Korean American, and a woman adversely affects my employability. Although people with disabilities have been graduating from law schools for some time, I still notice that a substantial number of attorneys with disabilities are unemployed. I am not sure how much of this is because of the economic recession increasing unemployment for all attorneys, but I do suspect that employment discrimination is at play. Most of my friends with disabilities from college are unemployed or underemployed.

Perhaps disability rights are not as evolved as gender rights. I heard that disability rights seems to stem from charity, instead of social justice rights, which is problematic in receiving these rights that are not considered to be on par with other rights. Perhaps to some degree, gender rights are not seen as relevant or on par with other rights as well.

Justice Ginsburg attended law school in the 50’s, soon after law schools starting admitting women, and there were a handful of women in her class. I graduated in 2008 and there were less than a handful of students with visible disabilities and students who were out about their hidden disabilities in my class, which had more female students than male. I realize gender discrimination still exists; my friend was fired right before her maternity leave.

Ginsburg was one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class. This picture of Ginsburg in law school is from this online article.

One major reason I chose to attend the law school that I attended (besides its Civil Rights Clinic) was because there were other students with disabilities. I was alarmed to find inadequate university disability services and lack of accessible housing. I constantly had to advocate for myself, which diminished my time for my studies. I had a theory that law school has a disparate impact on students with disabilities, since there are extra considerations for students with disabilities, in addition to being inundated with a new system of learning, called the dreaded Socratic Method. However, people like Justice Ginsburg poke holes to this theory, succeeding in law school while taking care of a child and hospitalized husband. Of course, I am not suggesting that I am any way near Ginsburg’s Harvard law review level; not many attorneys are. We also don’t all have Columbia Dean championing our causes.

Another student with a disability sued our law school for lack of accessibility. I’m not sure how much of the improved accessibility in the new addition and remodeled law school building was because of this law suit or my efforts promoting awareness with other students with disabilities through our Law and Disability Society events. The law school administration was initially reluctant to put in a bigger elevator in the addition, but there is now a spacious new elevator. An administrator justified the lack of accessibility in the old building that hadn’t been remodeled when I attended, from what seemed to be its inception in the 60’s, saying that they did not know that there would be students with disabilities. However, I found evidence to the contrary; a picture of one of the first graduating classes had a student with a disability in cap and gown. Of course he was a white male student, but a student with a disability nonetheless.

A law school professor I respect (particularly since she graduated from my law school, which is elitist in primarily hiring professors from Ivy League law schools) called me a trail blazer. I said that I wasn’t because I chose to attend this law school with other students with disabilities, as opposed to a Chicago school that tried almost successfully to woo me as its first student with a significant disability. Although this law professor never mentioned it, it is possible that she too faced gender discrimination as she attended law school in the 70’s, two decades after Justice Ginsburg. She did discourage me from going into personal injury litigation (Torts was my favorite class), saying that it was a Boys’ Club when she practiced.

Perhaps I was wrong about having to be first to be a trail blazer. Perhaps people who widen and improve the trails that have already been blazed can also be trail blazers. Just as Justice Ginsburg looks forward to the day when all nine Supreme Court justices are women, I look forward to the day when there will be our first Supreme Court justice with a disability, leading to more justices with disabilities. If she is a woman, that would be even better. Perhaps then, the ADA can have some bite and we can fight disability discrimination more effectively.


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