Ginsburg Sailed Through Her 1993 Hearings

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced little scrutiny during her 1993 confirmation hearings, winning unanimous support for her view that gender discrimination hurts men as well as women.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

(WOMENSENEWS)–With Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings looming next week, now is a good time to recall how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg–the most recent woman to face the Senate Judiciary Committee–managed to survive the political grilling in 1993.

Ginsburg escaped outright attacks or even intense scrutiny–despite her high-beam record on women’s rights.

In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, which has led litigation to eliminate gender discrimination in the workplace, schools and military. It has also helped women gain access to nontraditional occupations like firefighting and has fought for equal pay for female clerical workers.

In 1974 Ginsburg co-authored the first major sex discrimination casebook, which is used by law school students to develop their skills in litigating sex discrimination claims.

However, unlike the 1991 nomination hearing of Justice Clarence Thomas–a vitriolic battle between Democrats and Republicans over claims of sexual harassment accusations against Thomas–Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing was civil and took only three days.

Unanimous Support

The 18 members of the judiciary committee–two of whom were female, Dianne Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun–unanimously approved President Clinton’s nominee. "As a lawyer, Ginsburg made the case for treating women as full and equal citizens under the laws and Constitution," the committee said. "She described the injury to both sexes from unequal treatment based on gender stereotypes."

Conservative Republicans didn’t attack Ginsburg because the five gender discrimination cases she had won before the Supreme Court as the counsel for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project were based on her theory that gender discrimination hurts men as well as women.

One case that illustrated her point about the loss-loss effect of gender discrimination involved a federal statute that allowed a man to automatically claim his wife as a dependent, even if she did not depend on his income and receive the benefits. Women in the armed forces, however, could only qualify their husbands for benefits if he received more than half his income from his wife.

Ginsburg argued that this was discriminatory to everyone; to men who were financially dependent on their wives, as well as to women who made significant contributions to the family’s income.

Ginsburg’s appointment came 12 years after Sandra Day O’Connor broke the Supreme Court gender barrier in 1981.

Trailblazing Lawyer

Female lawyers were still rare when she entered the profession.

"For most girls growing up in the 1940s, the most important degree was not a B.A. but Mrs.," Ginsburg said in 2006.

She had been rejected by 12 law firms, despite tying for first place in her class at Columbia University Law School in 1959. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to hire her as a clerk because he didn’t want a woman.

As one of only 20 female law professors in the United States in 1963, Ginsburg wore baggy clothes to hide her pregnancy because she feared that Rutgers University in New Jersey might fail to renew her year-to-year-contract, according to a tribute to Ginsburg published by the ACLU in 2006.

Before President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia–one of the most politically contentious courts in the nation–in 1980, there were only eight women on the federal courts.

Today there are 212 full-time female federal judges, about one-fourth of the judiciary. Sotomayor is one of 18 Hispanic women on the federal bench.

Gender Sensitivity

Studies indicate that judicial panels on which women serve are more likely to be empathetic to female litigants in gender discrimination cases than are all-male courts, as the Supreme Court’s 8-1 ruling in a strip search case on June 25 demonstrates.

The majority agreed that school officials in Arizona had violated the constitutional rights of a 13-year-old girl when they strip-searched her to determine whether she possessed prescription-strength ibuprofen pills. No pain relief pills were found.

At the intense oral argument, according to media reports, several of the male justices had discounted Ginsburg’s view that the honors student had been humiliated when school officials forced the teenager to move her bra to the side and to stretch the waistband of her panties, exposing her breasts and pelvic area.

Several male justices compared the strip search to changing clothes before gym classes, which angered Ginsburg. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl," Ginsburg told USA Today. "It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I don’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understand."

By the time Souter wrote the majority opinion handed down on June 25, all but Thomas, had come around to Ginsburg’s view of the situation.

Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

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