Thursday, February 8, 2018
The Notorious RGB is on tour. In person, she's a tiny little lady, with a tiny little voice, but out on the road she draws crowds like any other rock star. And at eighty-four, she is going strong. She says she will keep going as long as she can "do the job full steam." She even has a movie coming out documenting her life. It's entitled "RBG." She's a big deal. Not many others get to go by just their initials and everyone still knows who they're talking about.
(Justice Ginsburg at NYU recently. This picture was too good not to share.)
Justice Ginsburg was recently profiled in the New York Times with tales of her latest adventures, but what she said about her criticism of Roe v. Wade many years ago, prompted me to think about my own day job - teaching law students how to advocate. In a lecture she delivered at NYU shortly before she joined the Supreme Court, Ginsburg
criticized Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.
The Supreme Court had moved too fast, Justice Ginsburg wrote at the time. It would have sufficed, she wrote, to strike down the extreme Texas law at issue in the case and then proceeded in measured steps in later cases to consider other abortion restrictions.
The trend in state legislatures in the early 1970s, she wrote, was toward more liberal abortion laws. The categorical Roe decision, she wrote, gave rise to “a well-organized and vocal right-to-life movement” that “succeeded, for a considerable time, in turning the legislative tide in the opposite direction.”
Her analysis is contested, as Justice Ginsburg acknowledged on Monday. “I know that there are many people who disagree with me on this subject,” she said.
This statement is so insightful for how I want my students to think about advocacy. Law schools are smack in the middle of moot court season right now, and many of us are running to practices after class or during our lunch breaks. Inevitably, always one critique for the student mooters is, "We are the Supreme Court. We can do anything we want. What should we do? Make that argument." Students are frequently stuck on precedent and making analogous arguments to lower court opinions. It takes some nudging to get them into the mindset to make them contemplate what really is the right decision for the court to make. Have the lower courts found the right reasoning, or have they gotten it wrong? Now is the time to tell the Supreme Court how to rule and why.
The point Justice Ginsburg makes is also prescient considering our current political discourse. How do we move good policies forward? Is having a court declare the rule a good path, despite a lag in public opinion? Or do we forge ahead having faith that public opinion will fall in line? We can see through history that unpopular decisions have eventually become the norm, but acceptance of many of these opinions has rarely been immediate. RBG may be right, perhaps sometimes the Court should move slower. But the value is in thinking through the ramifications of both action and patience.
These are the kinds of questions I want my students to wrestle with, so that they can become good advocates, but also good stewards of the profession. Lawyers hold the future of the law in their hands, and nurturing it is a task not to be taken lightly. I am glad Justice Ginsburg reminds us to think outside the judicial box.