Remarks for Suffolk
January 26, 2007
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States
When Dean Smith and Kjell Modéer asked me to participate in this celebration I said yes without hesitation. This is only my second visit to Suffolk Law School, the first was in the late 1970s, many years before most people in this audience were born. The school had assembled a stellar crew of lawyers to speak on appellate advocacy. Not yet a judge, I had been actively engaged in that form of advocacy as one of the ACLU's General Counsel and co-founder of the Union's Women's Rights Project. For the conference at Suffolk, I stepped back to think and write about what I strived to accomplish in briefs and oral argument. I recycled that talk many times for CLE programs during my years on the D.C. Circuit.
My affiliation with Lund University has deeper roots. I spent several months in Sweden in 1962 and 1963, attempting to learn about, and then convey to a common-law bar and bench, the main lines of Sweden's judicial system. My base was Lund, where my co-author, Anders Bruzelius, lived and served as a city court judge. In those years I came to appreciate the value of a comparative perspective on the law. An unexpected dividend. Studying about and observing another legal system in operation, I came to understand more completely the United States system in which I was schooled. I became a better teacher of procedure and a better judge, too, I believe, as a result of the experience.
The good job I now hold attracts honors and honorary degrees by the score. But no honor I have ever received has pleased me more than the honorary degree Lund University awarded to me and my co-author in 1969. I was given a tall pleated hat with a brass buckle at that promotion ceremony, and a finely crafted gold ring. The hat accounts for my popularity as a graduation speaker, and the ring is the only ring I have worn constantly from that day to this.
The topic of this conference is legal education as it has developed here and abroad. Before we begin our conversation I thought it appropriate to comment briefly on contributions of two kinds law faculties are equipped to make to the health and welfare of our legal system.
My first observation concerns the aid academicians can give to judges. As a judge now for some 26 years, I appreciate the importance of academic commentary. Our legal system gives judges considerable authority to shape the law through litigated cases. We entrust that large authority mainly to generalists, to jurists who cannot do their job well without help from specialists in the academy.
Benjamin Cardozo expressed the point best: "The Judge goes upon the Bench, and sees before him a list of names and numbers . . . . [O]ne case follows another. . . . More and more in such cases we are driven . . . to rely upon the work of a [legal scholar] . . . . It is not to be expected . . . that overnight and at the call of a single case we shall do the work . . . [scholars] have been doing in lifetimes of devoted and intensive effort."
At the Supreme Court in recent terms, the number of law professor amici briefs we have received has notably increased. I count that a good and useful development. Several of the best oral advocates appearing before the Court nowadays, I might add, are law teachers.
Faculty members can similarly inform lawmakers in legislative chambers and practioners of the law. And they can advance popular understanding and public dialogue through contributions to broadcast and print media.
My second observation concerns the public spirit law schools should strive to foster among law students. Law has been called a learned profession. That label will be undeserved if lawyers are trained simply to become skilled artisans, ready, willing, and able to earn fees for their craft.
Law and lawyers, one cannot avoid acknowledging, have fared rather badly in many a song and story. In grand opera, for example, lawyers are barely there. In Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, a lawyer has a bit part, but his assistance is so ineffective, he manages to get his client a few extra days in jail. The lawyer in Porgy and Bess ups the price to get Bess a divorce when she tells him she was never really married before.
Celebrated writers from Shakespeare to Sandburg have harbored a lingering distrust of the lawyers' trade. Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, put it this way:
The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle so distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
But the legal profession has among its practitioners brave men and women who strive to change that perception, jurists devoted to, and at work for, the public good - people who are the best of lawyers and judges, the most dedicated, the least selfish. Law faculties should seek to train lawyers fitting that description, young men and women who will regard the practice of law as a public calling.
It is time now to invite your questions. One ground rule: I cannot respond to a question aimed to uncover how the Court will rule in a pending case or might rule in a matter likely to come before the Court. That is the sum and substance of what some reporters dubbed "the Ginsburg rule" in recent confirmation hearings.