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Opinion: AG Nessel: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pursued civility, equality

Dana Nessel

It is almost impossible to quantify the contributions that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has made in her lifetime to advance gender equality and, more broadly, equal protection for all persons. Even if it were possible, doing so only magnifies the enormity of our loss. 

Indeed, every woman serving in a position of leadership in this country today, whether in a public or private institution or in an elected seat in any branch of government, is in that position in part because of Ginsburg’s tireless advocacy. And children who grow up understanding that their intellect, strength and compassion are not just welcomed, but needed, harbor this sentiment of equal footing because of Ginsburg’s advocacy.

Sharing a courtroom with Ginsburg was the highlight of my professional career, Nessel writes.

Well before her nominations to the bench (in 1980 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and in 1993 to the Supreme Court), Ginsburg, with strategic advocacy and select clients, carefully sought to dismantle established laws and mindsets by persuading the Supreme Court that the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the laws to ‘any person’ covers women as well as men.

As an attorney, she appeared before the Supreme Court six times, beginning with her January 17, 1973 argument in Frontiero v Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973). In that case, Sharron Frontiero, an air-force lieutenant, challenged a rule giving male airmen automatic housing benefits for their wives while women could do the same only by proving their husbands were dependent on them. Arguing for Frontiero on behalf of the ACLU, Ginsburg convinced the court that the rule unconstitutionally discriminated against women in violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause.

She described the discrimination faced by women in employment as “pervasive,” and the absence of women “in federal and state legislative, executive, and judicial chambers, in higher civil service positions and in appointed posts in federal, state, and local government” as “conspicuous.” She ended her argument with words crafted 140 years earlier by another pioneer dedicated to the same cause: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

I was three years old when Ginsburg’s first case was argued before the court. For me that date was April 28, 2015. Ginsburg had been on the bench for 22 years, already paving the way for me and others with numerous decisions and dissents that fiercely defended equality. The case was Obergefell v. Hodges, in which several same-sex couples, including my clients, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse, sued Michigan and other states over bans against same-sex marriages and not recognizing their legal marriages.

Sharing a courtroom with Ginsburg was the highlight of my professional career, and her majority-vote was the highlight of my personal life (following the arguments, I proposed to my wife on the steps of the Supreme Court).

Today, nearly 50 years after Ginsburg’s observations of the conspicuous absence of women in state executive and judicial chambers, I serve as the attorney general of the State of Michigan, where our governor, secretary of state, chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, solicitor general and several state department and agency heads are all women.

When asked during a February 2015 interview what she would like to be remembered for, Ginsburg said: “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability, and to help repair tears in her society.” Ginsburg didn’t just help repair tears — she strengthened the very fabric of our laws and institutions, leaving behind a more civilized society where equality for all remains a defining thread.

We must all preserve and reinforce this fabric in our work and our lives, weaving together an even stronger cloth for current and future generations. As your attorney general, I will commit to doing nothing less.

Dana Nessel is the attorney general of Michigan.