Skip to main content

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks at the Special Sitting of the Supreme Court


Washington, DC
United States

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court.

The Bar of the Court met today to honor the life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court from 1993 to 2020.

Justice Ginsburg was brilliant, courageous, and principled. 

She believed deeply in the capacity of the law to fulfill our country’s fundamental promise of equality. 

And she believed deeply in our Constitution. As she wrote in her opinion for the Court in United States v. Virginia, she believed in its “story of the extension of constitutional rights and protections to people once ignored or excluded.”

I first caught a glimpse of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in this courtroom in 1978, when she came here to argue Duren v. Missouri.

The Court’s law clerks were crowded into the wings of the courtroom to hear her. Our Justices had told us she was the best advocate we would hear that Term. 

And she did not disappoint  she won the case 8-1.

As it turned out, that would be her last argument before the Court. Two years later, she was appointed to the D.C. Circuit, and 13 years after that, she was appointed to the Supreme Court.

But it had been an amazing run as a litigator. Like Thurgood Marshall on behalf of equal rights for Black Americans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the chief tactician in a campaign for equal rights for women.

Beginning in 1971, she filed more than 20 Supreme Court briefs challenging legislative distinctions between the sexes  including distinctions that disadvantaged men  in order to establish the principle of equal treatment. 

She argued six cases before the Court, losing only one.

Just to describe some of those cases is to recall how different the world was then.

In Duren, the Court struck down a Missouri law that made jury duty optional for women  and only women.

In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, the Court struck down a provision that permitted a deceased man’s social security benefits to be paid to his widow, but did not permit a deceased woman’s benefits to be paid to her widower.

And in one of the first cases Justice Ginsburg briefed, Reed v. Reed, the Court unanimously struck down a state probate statute that said “males must be preferred to females” in appointing estate administrators.

Now, if you think the 1970s were different, you should hear just a snippet of Justice Ginsburg’s own description of what it was like in 1956, when she was one of only nine women in a Harvard Law School class of more than 500:

“[W]omen were not admitted to faculty club dining tables; one could invite one’s father, but not one’s wife or mother, to the Law Review banquet; [and] the old periodical room at Lamont Library was closed to women.”

In 1958, the Justice’s husband Marty – whom all of us who knew him loved – graduated from Harvard a year ahead of the Justice and received a job offer in New York. 

Justice Ginsburg asked the Dean to let her finish the requirements for her Harvard degree at Columbia. Famously, and to Harvard’s ever-lasting regret, the Dean denied her request.

So the Justice transferred to Columbia anyway, served as an editor of the law review, and tied for first in her class.

But in those days, even that was not enough. 

A Supreme Court Justice turned her down for a clerkship, telling the Dean of the law school that he “just wasn’t ready to hire a woman.” Nor could she find a job in a corporate law firm.

But as the Justice noted in 2009, that wasn’t such a bad result. If she had gotten the job, she said, she would have been a retired law firm partner instead of a Supreme Court Justice.

I do not need to tell anyone in this courtroom how different the world would be had that happened. 

During the Justice’s 27 years on this Court, she influenced every area of the law, from issues that made the headlines, like equal rights for women, to highly complex questions of civil procedure, without which our court system could not function.

Everyone here knows what an intellectual force she was on the Court. 

Every lawyer who appeared before her knows how incisive her questioning was at oral argument. 

And everyone who reads her concise, elegant opinions can see her commitment to – in her own words – “get it right and keep it tight.”

Justice Ginsburg was not only one of the country’s brightest legal minds; she was also a beacon of civility and collegiality.

She revered the role of the federal judiciary, and this Court in particular, in upholding the Rule of Law. 

She understood the necessity of an independent judiciary to our democracy.

“[E]ssential to the rule of law in any land,” she said, “is an independent judiciary, judges not under the thumb of other branches of government, and therefore equipped to administer the law impartially.” 

She strived to be that kind of judge. And she succeeded.

Justice Ginsburg was also an enormously caring person.

In her personal life, she supported Marty during his battle with cancer and then fought her own.

And in her professional life, she was an extraordinary mentor to her law clerks.

Justice Ginsburg’s impact on this Court, and on our country, will be felt for generations to come. She is – and always will be – deeply missed.

May her memory be a blessing.

Mr. Chief Justice, on behalf of the lawyers of this Nation  and in particular, the members of this Court’s Bar  I respectfully request that the resolutions presented to you in honor of Ruth Bader Ginsburg be accepted by the Court, and that together with the chronicle of these proceedings, they be ordered kept for all time in the records of this Court.

Updated March 17, 2023