‘Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is One of the Reasons I Work at Earthjustice’: Honoring a Legal Giant’s Legacy

Earthjustice staff share their memories of Justice Ginsburg and their reflections on her career.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, shown here at the Court in 2013, advocated for gender equality throughout her career.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, shown here at the Court in 2013, advocated for gender equality throughout her career. (Nikki Kahn / The Washington Post)

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fierce championing of civil rights and sharp legal mind advanced America’s vision of equality and justice.

As we honor her legacy this week, Earthjustice lawyers and staff are reflecting on personal encounters with Justice Ginsburg, advances in gender equality, and the power of the law as a tool in the fight for justice.

Read on to learn how Earthjustice staffers are remembering RBG.

Legal Tools for Social Change

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the reasons I work at Earthjustice. I read about Ginsburg’s work during a feminist jurisprudence course I took in college. Her role in changing the landscape for women’s rights and advancing gender equality helped me to understand how the law is a crucial tool in accomplishing social change. I’ve been happy to work with attorneys at Earthjustice in the broader movement for justice.

Flora Champenois, Senior Research & Policy Analyst

RBG in Action

After I learned that one of my cases was headed to the Supreme Court, my wife bought me an RBG action figure. RBG had a place of honor on my work desk, right next to my computer monitor, so that I could look to her for inspiration as I prepared for the most challenging argument of my legal career.

Months later, as I stood at the podium in the Supreme Court defending the Clean Water Act, the real Justice Ginsburg was there, only about 10 feet away. Halfway through my argument, she looked at me and asked “Mr. Henkin?” Given the nature of the case, her question was about flushing toilets. I was thrilled just to have her say my name.

The box containing my RBG action figure had “I dissent” emblazoned on the side. For the sake of everyone who depends on clean water, I’m happy Justice Ginsburg didn’t have to utter those words in my case. Instead, she joined a six-member majority reaffirming our right to a healthy environment.

Justice Ginsburg continues to inspire me, every day, to never stop fighting for what’s right.

David Henkin, Staff Attorney

Opening the Door to Workplace Equality

My mother was pursuing a degree in engineering in the late 1950s when she was told by a contact in the industry that as a woman, she would have to choose between a career in engineering and having children. Family was important to her, so she changed her major to teaching — a more acceptable career for a mother. Because of that choice, I was raised in the 1970s under a legacy of not letting anyone stand in my way. I was fortunate that this was the same time that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was bringing the fight for women’s rights to the courts — whether for a woman to be pregnant and maintain her job and career or eliminating sexual discrimination in promotions and pay. By the time I entered into the workplace, there was an established legal principle of equality for women.

But as Ruth knew, the court can establish precedent, but that doesn’t make it instantly change in the real world. As a young woman entering in corporate America in the 1990s right after RBG took her seat on the Supreme Court, I had to regularly confront sexism in the workplace. My direct management structure was typically all male, and one time, we were coming back from lunch, discussing a project that I was leading. The VP decided to stop into the restroom. The other men followed and then proceeded to continue the conversation — about my project! Refusing to be excluded from a discussion on my work, I gathered my personal fortitude and opened the door — to their shock! Over time, because I refused to let my recommendations be ignored or echoed and credited by men in the room, a male colleague once let me know he was afraid of me because I was “a real bitch.” He meant it as a compliment and so I wore that mantle with pride because I knew I had made my mark.

As RBG said, “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” I know I benefitted from all the steps she took in the courtroom to make my career possible. I hope the small steps I’ve taken made it possible for the people who came after me to experience a more equitable workplace, even while knowing that the journey is ongoing and so much more needs to be done.

Linda Rogers, Marketing Director

‘Their Lights Were Always On’

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg came to the Court, she chose chambers on the third floor of the building, upstairs from the other Justices and away from the eyes of most visitors to the Court. With no neighboring Justices to say otherwise, she covered not only her chambers but also the nearby hallways with art borrowed from the National Gallery. Bold colorful stuff, mostly abstract paintings by people like Mark Rothko and Josef Albers. I worked at the Court from 2003-2004, as a law clerk to Justice O’Connor. Once, on my way to compare notes with one of her clerks, I passed by her as she studied one of those paintings. Tiny woman, giant canvas. She asked me what I thought of it. It was a little terrifying.

The truth is that she was a little terrifying. More than anyone else on the Rehnquist Court, Justice Ginsburg had been a real litigator, and she knew how much the difference between good and excellent can matter. Just as we do. So she worked incredibly hard and demanded the same of everyone around her. Their lights were always on. She searched out the implications of every word, and she would edit things over and over, recirculate them time and again, to get things just right. Dissents too, even when she knew she was going to lose. That happened more often than not in her biggest fights. So I think she would say to us now: grieve, fume, rage, cry. But never rest.

Sam Sankar, Senior Vice President for Programs

‘We Must Never Falter’

I’ve been pretty lucky in that I got to see Justice Ginsburg and the rest of the Court in action on the bench back in 2014, and again last November when David Henkin argued Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund. Justice Ginsburg’s contribution to that discussion was pithy, but memorable. My clearest memory of her, however, is much closer to home. The University of Hawai‘i Richardson School of Law co-hosts an annual “Jurist in Residence” program, which invites noted judges and justices from around the world to spend about a week with law students and the legal community in Honolulu. In 2017, I had the great fortune of being a second-year student when our Jurist was none other than the Notorious RBG herself.

As a member of our law school’s Native Hawaiian student association, I and a few classmates hosted Justice Ginsburg’s welcome ceremony, which included her planting an ‘ōhi‘a lehua tree in our school courtyard. I was deeply honored to greet her and present her with the exquisite 5-strand white ginger lei she’s wearing in the photo. I remember looking around and seeing raw, palpable inspiration on the faces of my classmates as RBG related what tidbits of her wisdom time allowed, in her matter-of-fact but slyly humorous way. My classmates and I, and in particular the women and mothers among us, came away from that week with Justice Ginsburg strengthened, emboldened, and renewed, in a year that started off with the traumatic reality of a national political movement seemingly poised to undo so much of the progress RBG and others had pioneered. To see her, hear her, and feel her mana (spiritual/intellectual power) was to be reminded that we cannot and must never falter in the fight for what is good and right in the world, and against oppression and injustice, no matter how grave or entrenched it may be; and that sometimes, giants come in very small packages. Aloha nō.

Mahesh Cleveland, Associate Attorney

Strength in Solidarity

On Saturday, my husband and I biked to the Supreme Court to pay our respects. I found great solace in being a part of a group that was sharing the same sense of loss, and also strength in that solidarity to pick myself up and fight on.

Kim Smaczniak, Clean Energy Program Managing Attorney

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