Monday, September 21, 2020

Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Columbia

by Professor Michael Meltsner, Northeastern University School of Law

The early 1970s were years of great changes in American legal education, mirroring the turmoil evoked by the Viet Nam War, the continued struggle over civil rights and the legacy of riots fueled by assassinations and aggressive policing. Columbia University and its law school were still reeling from the massive disruption caused by violent student protests over efforts to build a gymnasium in West Harlem’s Morningside Park. A transformation was in the offing, altering who went to law school and what was taught.   

In 1970, I left my job as first assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to join the faculty to start one of the first clinical programs at a top-rated school. Two years later, Columbia  hired Ruth as the first tenure track female professor. On the surface, neither appointment was controversial. After years ignoring the matter, law schools were scrambling to hire women. In the New York Times, reporter Leslie Oelsner called the RBG appointment “a major coup.” In my case, Columbia was anxious to meet burgeoning student expectations for practical experience with programs aimed at representing the poor and minority communities. 

But beneath the surface there was apprehension at the changes. In the case of clinicians, older faculty worried their intellectual product might be debased by less cerebral experiential learning. Ruth’s appointment was championed by a new dean Michael Sovern, later to become the president of the University. At the faculty meeting that voted to hire her no one, so far as I recall, spoke against the appointment. Still there were comments that suggested anxiety at offering her tenure—a necessity given that she was already a tenured professor at Rutgers Law School. I remembered one coded response slightly disparaging Rutgers, a School by the way that had an estimable clinical program.

As a very junior member of the faculty I remained silent during the discussion. But it was plain that some professors had their doubts. The son of a mother who often worked outside of the home—her close college friends held responsible jobs in retail-- and having come from LDF where Constance Baker Motley, a Columbia graduate and by this time the first black woman to be named a federal judge, was a powerful influence I was dismayed, if not surprised, by even this covert show of doubt. My reaction was influenced by the treatment of the only other woman full time teacher who had been hired before Ruth. This was Harriet Rabb. Brilliant, full of stamina, and a lively sense of irony and humor, Rabb taught a clinical course in employment discrimination that would successfully challenge gender inequality at major law firms like Rogers & Wells and publications like Newsweek. Ruth’s hire was notable because she had full status in the academic caste system. Despite her achievements, Harriet was only a lecturer; later Dean Sovern protected and increased her status by making her an assistant dean. But she was not authorized to attend faculty meetings for years and, of course, could not vote.

You can get a greater sense of the ambivalence that initially greeted RBG by her own words at the time she joined the faculty. Oelsner quotes her as saying “I'm not going to curtail my activities in any way to please them.” In short, the ACLU work that would lead to her fame and greatest achievement was still going to dominate her attention. “I don't think I'll have any problem,” she added, “People will be pleasant on the outside. Some of them may have reservations about what I'm doing, but I don't think they'll be expressed.”

Those reservations soon dissipated as she embarked on the journey that changed American law and more importantly American culture and politics forever.  She was given an office close by mine, an area on the eighth floor of the law school building populated by clinical teachers like my academic partner Philip Schrag and later proponent of a radical humanist vision of the law, Jack Himmelstein. We were all in a way outsiders, agents introduced into the then static world of the legal academy to bring it closer to what was happening in the world. 

My first vision of Ruth is indelible. On my way to deliver some papers to my secretary, I knocked on her office door to welcome her. She was sitting facing away from her desk toward a dormitory building that blocked our full view of Morningside Park.  She swiveled in her chair to greet me. Hair pulled back in a bun, crouched over a yellow legal pad, she acknowledged my greeting. She smiled her very particular and winning smile. We exchanged a few words. After a while, she looked down at the pad. She was, she said, writing a Supreme Court brief. I said, “Well you should get on with it.”

She did. 

[Editors' Note:  Over the next few days, we will be running a series of posts remembering Justice Ginsburg and her work.  Check back for updates.}

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