“It was the best Women and the Law Conference yet,” said TJSL Professor Susan Tiefenbrun of the 13th annual edition of the event, held February 8 at Thomas Jefferson School of Law.
It was titled “HER HONOR: Women in the Judiciary” and appropriately, the sold-out conference featured a very special guest appearance by U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a trailblazer in her profession. It also featured the Ruth Bader Ginsburg lecture by Professor Susan Williams. Named in Justice Ginsburg’s honor the lecture was hailed as one of the best in this prestigious series.
From the moment Justice Ginsburg entered the room to a standing ovation, the audience was thrilled and honored to be in her presence.
Her appearance was broadcast by C-SPAN: See the coverage
Justice Ginsburg answered questions from a panel consisting of Professors Kenneth Vandevelde and Rebecca Lee, along with third-year student Jennifer McCollough.
In turn, Justice Ginsburg was charming, humorous and completely candid in responding to the questions.
When asked by Professor Vandevelde whether a president should appoint Supreme Court Justices who are easily confirmable, Justice Ginsburg noted that her colleagues Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan were not easily confirmed as "they should have been."
"I hope for the day that we can get back to where the system was when I was nominated in 1993," Justice Ginsburg said. "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 affiliationwith the ACLU. During my confirmation, not one Senator asked me about it.”
In answer to a question from Jennifer McCollough about whether she had ever envisioned the day when a woman would sit on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg credited former president Jimmy Carter when it came to appointing women to the federal bench . “He literally changed the complexion of the judiciary,” she said. As the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Justice Ginsburg added that in the beginning she would often have to tell people “I’m Ruth, not Sandra,” when being addressed as Justice O’Connor. Justice Ginsburg added that during the time she was the only female justice, it was lonely. It is now “a very lively court. And my sisters on the court are definitely not shrinking violets.”
Professor Rebecca Lee posed a question about the effect three women on the court has on her male colleagues and Justice Ginsburg replied that she and the other women justices “Bring life experience to the table. We grew up female and we help our colleagues understand things they might not understand,” referring especially to a 1983 case where a 13 year old girl had been strip-searched at school. “At first the men joked about it, until I told them that there is a difference between the way a 13-year-old boy and girl feel. Then the joking stopped.”
In response to a question from Professor Vandevelde about the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to be ratified, Justice Ginsburg said, “I hope ERA will one day be part of the constitution. Men and women need to have equal stature. ERA needs to be there. It may be symbolic, but it’s important.”
Justice Ginsburg also spoke of her hopes that the high court will someday overrule the controversial Citizens United decision the court rendered. “It’s a very wrong decision. But as a great man said (Yogi Berra) - it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”
It is certainly not anywhere nearly over for Justice Ginsburg, who received her biggest round of applause when she told the audience, “I’m going to do this job as long as I am able to do it,” referring to speculation that the 80-year-old justice might be planning to retire.
As mentioned earlier, the 2013 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lecturer was Susan Williams, the Walter W. Foskett Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Constitutional Democracy at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who is a former clerk of Justice Ginsburg.
“It’s difficult to put into words the respect and affection I have for her tremendous kindness, astonishing brilliance and complete integrity,” said Professor Susan Williams of Justice Ginsburg, as she began the lecture that bears Justice Ginsburg’s name. “She is a beacon of hope for all of us.”
In her lecture, “Women and Judging: A Feminist Approach to Judgment and the Issue of Customary Law,” Professor Williams explained the co-existence in many nations, especially in Africa, of two sets of laws – constitutional and a customary system.
“Customary systems are sometimes blended with religious or tribal custom and the rules sometimes differ from the legal system,” Professor Williams related. “Customary systems are a crucial way of life, for example in Sudan, where there are few lawyers or courts outside of cities. 80-percent of disputes are settled in customary systems and people don’t often trust the courts. What is problematic is that while customary systems are recognized by constitutions in many parts of the world, they may violate human rights and gender considerations.”
Professor Williams cited Liberia as a country when women have few rights and the customary systems often discriminate against women – despite the fact that Liberia’s constitution outlaws discrimination against women.
“Lasting change is only possible when women in their system exercise power in that system – when women become judges in customary systems,” said Professor Williams. “A paradigm shift is needed. Women must be the makers and members of that system.”
The first discussion panel was Global Perspectives on women and the judiciary, moderated by TJSL Professor Bryan Wildenthal and featured former Chief Justice of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court Carlos Ayres Britto; former French Supreme Court Justice Noëlle Lenoir; Assistant Dean Leslie Kuan-Hsi Wang of the Zhejiang University Guanghua Law School in Hangzhou China and Professor Nienke Grossman, a Professor of the University of Baltimore School of Law.
The second discussion panel was Domestic Perspectives on women and the judiciary, moderated by TJSL alumna and retired Superior Court Judge Lillian Lim ‘77, that featured Professor Sally Kenney of the Newcomb College Institute of Tulane University; Justice Laurie Zelon of the California Court of Appeal, Second District and Professor Carla D. Pratt of the Dickinson School of Law at Penn State University.
Both panels were vibrant and illuminating as the speakers shared their experiences and views on the status of women in the judiciary.
Many of the TJSL students who attended this fascinating conference felt they had witnessed something unforgettable.
"It was a huge honor to be a part of the panel with Justice Ginsburg," said Jennifer McCollough. "I also enjoyed being on the panel with Professors Lee and Vandevelde as they had both been my professors in the past. Not only was I impressed with Justice Ginsburg's brilliance, but I loved how she carried herself as a lady."
“Attending TJSL has given me many wonderful, rewarding and enriching experiences, but the pinnacle of my law school career was attending the Women and Law conference,” said TJSL third-year student RuthAnne Bergt. “The organizers of the conference gathered amazing speakers - including authors, academics, international Justices, and local judges. It was fascinating to hear the different perspectives and ideas regarding women's rights, both internationally and nationally, and women in the law profession.”
“It was very inspiring to hear Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the Q and A of the conference,” said first year TJSL student Edith Polanco. “It was amazing to hear about her experiences and what she hopes for the future of our country. This event was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I thank all those who helped organize this conference.”
“I thought the conference was a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear the ideas and visions of some of the most important judges and academics in their fields,” said third year student Matt Pennington. “We were extremely lucky to have Justice Ginsburg who not only shared her wisdom but her humor and candor. It means a lot to have a U.S. Supreme Court Justice tell you to do what you can to help others and to give back to our communities. As a male in the room I found the words of feminism and action inspiring and able to translate to the causes we champion in a variety of areas.”
After the conference, there was a reception at the law school that allowed attendees and speakers to mingle, including with Justice Ginsburg, who was gracious enough to pose for pictures with many of the conference guests, including students.
“The personal highlight of the day for me was getting to meet Justice Ginsburg and getting my picture taken with her at the reception after the conference,” said RuthAnne Bergt. “She was so gracious and friendly (and has a wonderful sense of humor). It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am so grateful to have gotten and will remember for the rest of my life. “
Indeed it was a landmark event for Thomas Jefferson School of Law and it was capably organized by Professors Julie Cromer and Meera Deo, who have received great praise and congratulations for the conference and who have in turn thanked everyone in the TJSL Family who helped make the 13thAnnual Women and the Law Conference such an unparalleled success.
"I think what made Friday's Women and the Law Conference unique is that often scholars focus on what courts can do for women," said Professor Cromer Young. "This conference asked what women in judicial positions can do for the courts. By looking at that question from several different angles and several different venues, I learned that regardless of number of women on the courts or the geographic location, having women on the courts makes a difference to the quality of justice the court delivers. And in a democratic society, the quality of justice is key for the legitimacy of the court's outcomes."
"This year's Women and the Law Conference was an extraordinary success!," said Professor Deo. "It was such an honor to host Justice Ginsburg, and listen to her reflect on her 20 years on the Supreme Court as well as her life and practice before joining the bench. We heard from local and international scholars and practitioners discussing the experience of women in the judiciary in Brazil, China, France, on the Standing Rock Sioux Supreme Court, on international courts, and throughout the United States. Keynote speaker Susan Williams gave a fascinating account of customary law in Liberia and elsewhere, including the ways in which women can and do take on leadership positions."
Video of the Women and the Law Conference, February 8, 2013