RBG’s First Supreme Court Case

UAP was saddened to hear of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week. You may be surprised to learn that Ginsburg made her first appearance before the Supreme Court while arguing a case with Alabama ties.

The case was Frontiero v. Richardson (1973) — a landmark decision that stated benefits given by the United States military to the family of service members cannot be distributed differently because of sex. As director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, future Justice Ginsburg argued in favor of Sharron Frontiero – a lieutenant serving as a physical therapist, stationed on Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

This case and its implications are detailed in the new book Alabama Justice: The Cases and Faces That Changed a Nation by Steven P. Brown. Brown’s book examines the legacies of eight momentous US Supreme Court decisions that have their origins in Alabama legal disputes.

Below is a short excerpt in which Brown details Ginsburg’s captivating oral arguments in the case:

The second significant thing to occur during the Frontiero oral arguments was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s debut before the Supreme Court. As director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she would go on to argue six landmark gender-related cases before the Supreme Court, prevailing in five of them. Relatedly, and the third thing that made the oral arguments in Frontiero particularly memorable, was that during Ginsburg’s presentation, the entire bench was quiet.

Oral arguments before the Supreme Court consist of lawyers from both sides standing before a wooden lectern in front of the nine justices and pleading their case for typically thirty minutes per side. Because the case arrives on appeal, there can be hundreds of pages of briefs, lower court opinions, and other materials that the justices and their clerks have reviewed prior to oral arguments.

With so much information already in possession of the justices and with so little time to present their position, attorneys at oral argument know they must focus only on the key aspects of their case. That task is made considerably more difficult, however, by the fact that the justices constantly interrupt oral arguments to pose questions of counsel. What usually follows is a rapid-fire exchange as attorneys respond to questions while desperately trying to stay on track and make their point before their allotted time runs out.

In Frontiero, the justices interrupted Levin twenty-one times and Huntington nearly fifty times during their combined fifty minutes before the Court. But at Ginsburg’s first appearance before the Supreme Court, the justices were silent as she argued that gender discrimination deserved strict scrutiny consideration. “Sex, like race,” she explained, “is a visible, immutable characteristic, bearing no necessary relationship to a body. Sex, like race, has been made the basis for unjustified, or at least unproved, assumptions concerning an individual’s potential to perform or contribute to society.” For ten uninterrupted minutes, Ginsburg captivated the Court while challenging the justices to protect Frontiero and all women from discriminatory laws and policies.

For further reading on Ginsburg’s career, see Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legacy of Dissent: Feminist Rhetoric and the Law by Katie L. Gibson, a rhetorical analysis of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s feminist jurisprudence

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