21 Sep 2020

'The best of the best' - lawyers pay tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supreme Court judge was a trailblazer for gender equality and an outstanding jurist, say her many admirers

Notes and flowers are left at the Supreme Court of the United States in memory of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Washington DC on September 20, 2020

Notes and flowers are left at the Supreme Court in memory of late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Washington DC By Rena Schild

The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been met with a flood of tributes from senior members of the legal profession.

Ginsburg, who died last Friday aged 87 following complications from cancer, was the second woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court and served there for 27 years, having first been appointed to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia from 1980-1993.

The first woman to be appointed to a tenure-track professorship in law at Columbia University, Ginsburg was the founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972. She argued six gender discrimination cases before the US Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, and litigated hundreds more.

The Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, said the nation had “lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague”. 

He added he was confident that “future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice”. 

The president of the American Bar Association (ABA), Patricia Lee Refo, noted Ginsburg’s many contributions to the ABA’s work, as well as the honours bestowed on her, including the ABA Medal in 2010. 

“Ginsburg made vast and lasting contributions to the law and to the profession,” she said. “She was a commanding voice as an advocate for gender equality and a tenacious protector of the rule of law.”

Scott Karson, president of the New York State Bar Association, added: “She never forgot her roots in Brooklyn or at Columbia Law School, returning often to inspire young law students who were in awe of her.” 

He said that it was because of her that "many women dared to become lawyers at a time when such a career path was viewed with scepticism”.

Her alma mater was equally reverential. “In Columbia Law School’s long and venerable history, I am hard pressed to think of an individual who more singularly elevated our collective aspirations than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Dean Gillian Lester.

Many law firm partners also took to social media to pay tribute.

Among them was Ann Marie Painter, firmwide chair of employment at Perkins Coie. She said Ginsburg “provided inspiration, and set a standard of excellence for all of us in the legal profession. She led a life dedicated to the service of others and making this world a better place.”

Neal Kaytal, former US acting solicitor general and co-head of Hogan Lovells’ appellate litigation practice, said Ginsburg was “an American hero – the best of the best”, adding that she was “a giant among us mortals". 

Kannon Shanmugam, managing partner of Paul Weiss’s Washington office, noted: “In her opinions, Justice Ginsburg was fond of referring to ‘pathmarking’ precedents.  She was the true pathmarker, a justice who broke barriers and served as a role model for so many. I count myself honoured to have appeared in front of her.”

From the conservative Federalist Society, Lee Liberman Otis, of Georgetown Law School, described Ginsburg as a “lawyer’s lawyer”. She added: “Her success as an advocate took root in large measure in her discipline in selecting cases and in carefully reading precedent – both for what it included and what it omitted.”

Referencing Ginsburg’s long friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia – the leading conservative judge – she said “shared respect for good legal craftsmanship was... a central, if largely overlooked, foundation for their friendship”.

Otis concluded: “Each firmly believed that mature people could in good faith take different views on even the most important legal questions without being histrionic, or posing a threat to their adversary's feelings.” 

Delphine O’Rourke, a partner at Goodwin, posting on LinkedIn, said simply: “I mourn.”