In 1970, a young Air Force lieutenant, Sharron Frontiero, walked into my fledgling law firm in Montgomery, Alabama, which would one year later become the Southern Poverty Law Center. She was being denied the same housing benefits for married couples that were automatically provided to her male counterparts in the armed forces.
We filed a discrimination complaint in federal district court on her behalf, and within a couple of years, I found myself arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that female members of the armed forces should be granted, under the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, the same rights as men.
During that formative experience, I fortuitously came into the orbit of – and quickly came to know and admire – the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To make a long story short, the ACLU filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief with the Supreme Court, and I authorized Justice Ginsburg to use part of my oral argument before the Court. We secured an 8-1 landmark decision.
What I remember most was not the argument, but the quick-witted humor and sheer brilliance of Justice Ginsburg. The evening before the argument, I had dinner with her and her late husband, Martin. We hardly discussed the case, but rather had wonderful conversations about issues completely unrelated to the law. I will never forget just how enjoyable that evening was. As a 29-year-old kid who was scared to death about what was in store the following day, it actually helped calm my nerves.
Justice Ginsburg argued and won another four cases on gender equality before the Court. And from her first term as a justice, she made it her mission to guarantee equal protection and open doors for women and other marginalized communities across the nation. She was a deeply principled person who demonstrated great courage and conviction throughout her entire legal career – a champion of women’s rights, reproductive justice, civil rights and workers’ rights.
Her grace and steely determination never wavered, even in defeat. "Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time," she famously said.
Indeed, some of her most memorable – and impactful – work came in the form of dissenting opinions. In Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Justice Ginsburg wrote that the majority had been shortsighted. Getting rid of the requirement for federal “preclearance” of voting law changes in certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination, she argued, was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
And her dissent in a workplace pay discrimination case ultimately led to the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Given the transformative figure she always was, and the inspirational icon she eventually became, Justice Ginsburg will be sorely missed by all who knew her – and knew of her.
Now, it’s our turn to show up with that same courage and conviction. In honor of her extraordinary contributions to our democracy, we must redouble our commitment to continuing RBG’s mission of achieving justice and equity for all.
Joseph J. Levin, Jr., a native of Montgomery, Alabama, is co-founder and board member emeritus of the Southern Poverty Law Center.