I had the great honor of meeting Ruth Bader Ginsburg on 29 May 2007, the day on which I officially joined the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Some background: I was part of a small group of attorneys from Puerto Rico and from across several of the States who had applied to join the SCOTUS bar that year. Our bar membership applications had already been approved by the clerk, and so my colleagues and I were in Washington, D.C. to attend our swearing-in ceremony in open court.
Alas, I don’t remember if it was before or after the formal oath ceremony, but Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Ginsburg both took the time out of their busy schedules to meet with us. Yet even more memorable than meeting two justices was having the opportunity to hear RBG deliver one of her famous dissents on that same day! You see, that was also the day in which SCOTUS would announce its nefarious decision in the controversial case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire Company. (The court’s opinion is available here.) In summary, the majority in that case had relied on a technicality in the law to deny Lilly Ledbetter’s equal pay claim against the Goodyear Tire Company, but Justice Ginsburg was having none of it. She used the occasion to read out loud her dissenting opinion in open court, a dissent that I found both powerful and persuasive in spite of RBG’s gentle and soft-spoken nature. (Here is a link to her dissent.)
Indeed, RBG’s Ledbetter dissent would not only turn out to be one of her most influential dissents of all time; it also changed the way I see the law. Among other things, Justice Ginsburg scolded the majority for their narrow reading of federal anti-discrimination law, and she then invited Congress to take matters into their hands: “This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation of Title VII, incompatible with the statute’s broad remedial purpose. Once again, the ball is in Congress’s court …“
In other words, what struck me the most about RBG’s remarkable dissent is that SCOTUS does not have to have–and should not have–the last word in cases involving federal statutory interpretation. (In fact, later that same day, New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton introduced “The Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act,” which was eventually enacted into the law.) Ever since that day, I have also asked, why should SCOTUS have the last word in matters of federal constitutional interpretation as well? SCOTUS is just one branch of our federal government, and it lacks both the power of the purse as well as the power of sword, to quote Hamliton’s immortal words in Federalist Paper No. 78. Be that as it may, may RBG rest in peace; we lost an iconic woman, a leading jurist, and a great American last night …