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Supreme Court justice discusses advances for women

CARLYN RAY MITCHELL Updated: August 28, 2010 at 12:00 am

Two of North America’s top judges — both women — talked candidly about the dramatic gender breakthroughs in the legal profession during a Friday night event in Colorado Springs that drew judges and lawyers from the western United States.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Canada’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin spoke to a crowd of 400 at The Broadmoor hotel, where a conference is bring held for the federal 10th Judicial Circuit.

The audience included Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor.

Ginsburg kicked off the night of Supreme Court lessons with a speech on her career that had been  written by her late husband.

Ginsburg and McLachlin then joined a “fireside chat” moderated by National Public Radio host Nina Totenberg.

The two judges told stories about their careers, invoking humor not often seen from the bench.

When McLachlin was sworn in as the third Canadian female justice in 1989, Bertha Wilson, the country’s first woman on the court, leaned to McLachlin and whispered, “Three down, six to go.” The Canadian editorial pages were littered with outraged letters after McLachlin shared that anecdote in a speech shortly after her appointment.

“Well it was well over 100 years and they had nine men and the country didn’t come to rack and ruin, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if were to come to pass. All that to say, I think that the more gender parity we can get, the better. I think it really helps normalize the whole atmosphere on a court,” said McLachlin, the first woman to serve as chief justice of Canada’s high court.

Ginsburg, who spent her career as a lawyer fighting gender inequities, had the audience in fits of laughter as she recalled her involvement in the landmark Supreme Court case Craig v. Boren.

The case overturned an Oklahoma law that allowed women to purchase 3.2 beer at age 18 but required men to wait until their 21st birthday. The 77-year-old judge referred to the group of fraternity brothers who originally brought the case as “the thirsty boys.”

Ginsburg explained how the case changed the way the Court scrutinizes sex-classification cases.

“We wish that the court would have picked a less frothy case to make that announcement. But of course we were very pleased that after that, gender based classifications would be looked at closely and they would not pass muster unless there was an exceedingly persuasive justification for the classification,” Ginsburg said.

Ginsburg also talked about challenges she faced as a mother working her way first through legal academia, then as a practicing lawyer and judge.

When her son was in grade school, she said, she received frequent phone calls from school administrators requesting she leave her job as a professor at Columbia University to handle one disciplinary situation or another. When she finally demanded that the school begin calling her husband once in a while, the calls became less frequent.

“They were much more concerned about taking a man away from his job than a mother away from hers,” she said.

Since the 1980s, the influence of women on the continent’s highest courts has soared.
There are four women justices on Canada’s Supreme Court. There are three women on the U.S. Supreme Court with the recent appointment of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I think now we’ve arrived at the point on our court where people — men or women — don’t think in terms of gender. I think we just think of each other and interact with each other as colleagues,” McLachlin said.

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