A Tribute to Justice Ginsburg

The following message was sent to all Ohio State students, faculty and staff on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020.


Dear Buckeye Nation:

Like so many of you, I have spent this weekend reading and thinking about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, as she put it, had the good fortune “to be alive and a lawyer, when, for the first time in United States history, it became possible to urge ... the equal-citizenship stature of women and men as a fundamental constitutional principle.”

She is an inspiration because she used the law to assert the value and dignity of all people. In several of the groundbreaking cases she argued before the Supreme Court in the 1970s as the director of the A.C.L.U. Women’s Rights Project, the plaintiff was a man who’d been disadvantaged by sex discrimination. She knew how to persuade, and she wisely understood that laws that limited opportunities based on sex were not good for anyone.

At this moment, as our nation confronts its history of racial injustice, and so many members of our Ohio State community are working so passionately to build a better world, she offers a powerful example of how to move mountains.

“Fight for the things you care about,” she said, “but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

She turned adversaries into allies, and was nearly as famous for her friendships as for her jurisprudence, including with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. When he was once asked why he was giving her two dozen roses on her birthday, considering he never got her vote in a close decision, he replied, “Some things are more important than votes.”

Justice Ginsburg insisted that collegiality was essential to the mission of the Supreme Court. She was a deeply gracious person, as I saw when I had the great privilege—and thrill—of awarding her an honorary degree from the State University of New York during my time as chancellor.

At dinner the night before the ceremony, my wife, Veronica, and I asked her about something we’d learned from the movie “On the Basis of Sex”: During her first year at Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean had asked each of the nine women in her class why she was occupying a seat that could have gone to a man.

Justice Ginsburg patiently explained to us that Dean Griswold had been a proponent of admitting women to Harvard Law, and this apparently offensive question was about his wanting to hear for himself how the women intended to use their education. She also told us that decades later, when President Clinton was weighing whom to nominate for the Supreme Court, it was the high praise of Dean Griswold, later Solicitor General Griswold to Presidents Johnson and Nixon, that tipped the balance.

Clearly, she could look kindly on someone who’d challenged her. And with her amazing accomplishments as a lawyer and judge, she’d turned a skeptic into a great admirer—something that I suspect happened many, many times in her life.

As we honor and mourn and celebrate her, let’s continue her work until there truly is equal justice for all. And let’s do that work with as much of her reason, empathy, kindness, and respect for others, as we can muster.

Rest in peace, Justice Ginsburg. Thank you for your service. We’ll take it from here.

Kristina Johnson, PhD