Center for Rule of Law Initiatives Annual Meeting
July 11, 2006
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States
I am glad to be with you this afternoon, and bring you greetings from my dear colleague, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Of all American Bar Association endeavors, Justice O'Connor valued most her affiliation first with CEELI, and now with the expanded Center for Rule of Law Initiatives. I share her view that no effort of the ABA is more important or impressive.
I am particularly pleased to be here for the Reformers Award presentation. The award recognizes individuals who have shown uncommon vision, courage, and perseverance in advancing the rule of law in their own countries, and by their example, inspiring others to follow in their way.
I have read about this year's award recipients and applaud their brave initiatives and remarkable accomplishments. Each recipient ranks among the very best in the legal profession, the most dedicated, the least selfish. A great United States jurist, Judge Learned Hand, once delivered a moving address on the spirit of liberty. In it, he said that the spirit of liberty will never be, except as the "conscience and courage of [brave individuals] create it." We honor at this session four individuals who have strived each day to be part of that creation:
Edil Baisalov, President of the Coalition of NGOs for Democracy and Civil Society, Kyrgyzstan. Steadfast human rights advocate, he has promoted reform efforts designed to advance democracy and abate corruption in his country. He has persisted in doing so despite threats to, and even a violent assault on, his very life.
The Honorable Hector Ramirez Sanchez, Mexican jurist, who has promoted dispute settlement through mediation, first in his home State, then in various States across his country. He faced opposition from lawyers who saw mediation as a threat to their livelihood. And he overcame the inertia of legislative and executive officers to gain the resources necessary to put the principles of mediation he helped to draft into regular practice.
Yuri Schmidt, Chairman of the Russian Lawyers Committee in Defense of Human Rights, brave defender of individuals who served the public's right to know, to the discomfort and displeasure of governing authorities. No doubt he could live comfortably and safely simply by practicing law as head of Yuri Schmidt & Partners in Saint Petersburg. Not content with being a skilled artisan, he knows the large satisfaction a lawyer can gain by contributing vitally to the public good.
The Honorable Samuel Kofi Woods II, now Liberia's Minister of Labor. Through 24 years of turbulence, repression, and corruption in his country, he was an outspoken champion of
human rights, social justice, and peace. Political prisoners, refugees, and truth-speaking journalists were the beneficiaries of his valiant efforts. During most of his lawyering life, he suffered state surveillance, slander, even death threats. Today he is playing a lead role in restoring the rule of law
Above the imposing entrance of the Courthouse in which I work, the Supreme Court of the United States, four words are etched in large letters: "Equal Justice Under Law." Those words are still aspirational in the USA, as they are elsewhere in the world. But some of our greatest lawyers have devoted their time and talent to hastening the day when they become a reality.
Louis D. Brandeis, who graced the U.S. Supreme Court from 1916 until 1939, is one example. In his lawyering days, Brandeis was known as "the People's Advocate," because he thought it incumbent on members of the Bar to serve all people in their communities, the least advantaged no less than the most powerful.
A more recent example is Thurgood Marshall, who became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice in 1967 and served until 1991. As a lawyer, he represented legions of African-Americans accused, sometimes without just cause, of criminal activity. And during all his years at the Bar, he strived mightily to end law-enforced racial segregation in the United States.
Just as those great men inspired people like me to use their law degrees to promote a more just society, so our award winners, and many others in this audience, are striving to serve the public good.
A great lady who lived during the years the United States became an independent nation wrote regularly to her then young son, John Quincy Adams, when he was sojourning abroad. She spoke of the challenging times in which that future President of the USA was coming of age:
It is not in the still calm of life, the repose of a pacific station, she said, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind, her experience confirmed, are formed in contending with difficulties.
May all present here thrive in contending with today's difficulties, prime among them, preserving the rule of law, and respect for human dignity, in the face of threats to public safety and security. Gatherings like this enable people who subscribe to fundamental principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all to join hands with others who hold to those principles. I wish you well as you work in various ways to repair tears in your local communities, your countries, and our world.