Justice Ginsburg’s Visit to Korea

Last week I had the pleasure and honor of meeting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  During the Supreme Court’s August recess, Justice Ginsburg was invited to Seoul by the Supreme Court of Korea to exchange ideas about the Korean and U.S. legal systems.  

Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she was at the time the second woman in U.S. history to have been appointed to the Supreme Court.  Entering Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg was one of nine women in a class of over 500. So rare was her entry into Harvard Law that the dean of the school reportedly invited the female students to his house to ask why they were occupying seats that could be held by male students.  Justice Ginsburg went on to found the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972 to take on cases of gender discrimination.  While raising her daughter and son, with strong support from her husband, she rose to the highest court in the country and has inspired generations of attorneys and those fighting for gender equality.

Justice Ginsburg was accompanied on her trip by her daughter, Professor Jane Ginsburg, who teaches law at Columbia Law School and is one of our nation’s preeminent legal scholars in the field of intellectual property rights.  While in Seoul, Justice Ginsburg visited the Supreme Court of Korea to spend time with her counterparts and tour the buildings.  She held valuable discussions with Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae and Justice Kim So-young.  She also visited the Constitutional Court of Korea.  The judges discussed shared values such as the importance of rule of law and jurisprudence. 

 With Chief Justice Yang Sung-tae

Soon after Justice Ginsburg’s arrival, I had the honor of hosting a welcome reception for her at Habib House.  There were Korean Supreme Court judges and justices in attendance, one of whom, Justice Kwon Soon-il, interestingly, was a student of Justice Ginsburg’s daughter, at Columbia University.
Welcoming Justice Ginsburg to Korea

Local university students had a rare chance to speak with her at our “Real People Talking” program, which I moderated.  When providing advice to the students, Justice Ginsburg attributed her success to having lived a life well balanced between family and studies.  She also made the comment that the Supreme Court in the U.S. is collegial and that, contrary to what might be reported in the press from time to time, the members of the Supreme Court genuinely like each other!  They work together closely to persuade one other regarding important issues.  She described a committed, collegial body that works diligently to uphold its responsibilities – across different legal viewpoints.  One of the more interesting – yet light – moments of discussion was regarding the comic opera, “Scalia/ Ginsburg” which opened in 2013.  A key song in the opera is “We are Different. We are One.”  As Justice Ginsburg said, while some of her colleagues have different points of view, they are one in their reverence for the institution.

The student audience was very engaged and asked excellent questions, in particular about her most memorable cases.  They were also keen to know how it was starting her career as a woman so many years ago.  I enjoyed hearing her answers on these topics and others including difficult theoretical questions pertaining to the concept of justice, and whether it varies by culture and whether citizens should be obliged to obey laws they view as unjust.  The students clearly had put some thought into the questions. 
A frank discussion with Korean university students

While in Seoul, she also had a chance to meet with some LGBT community representatives and listen to their stories over dinner. Justice Ginsburg is a guardian of human rights and has officiated same-sex marriage ceremonies herself.

Justice Ginsburg has worked on some landmark cases prior to her ascension to the Supreme Court.  She even argued several cases in front of what was – at the time – an all-male court.  One case in particular was Reed v. Reed.  Sally Reed, a mother whose son who had passed away, requested to be named administrator of her son’s estate, but her husband made the same request after she did. The court appointed her husband as the administrator because Idaho state law specified that men must be given preference over women in inheritance cases.  In 1971, when then-attorney Ginsburg defended Sally Reed’s claim, the law was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.  She also helped change a law that said widows, but not widowers, could collect special benefits for childcare, thereby ensuring fathers weren’t discriminated against based on their gender.

While she was here, Justice Ginsburg also experienced some of Korea’s cultural richness with visits to the National Museum of Korea and the Secret Garden at Changdeokgung Palace, and enjoyed delicious and healthy Korean temple food. 

 Justice Ginsburg at the Secret Garden in Changdeokgung Palace

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an inspiration to multiple generations and is even the subject of an upcoming movie starring Natalie Portman as Justice Ginsburg.  After spending time with her on this visit, I can say with certainty that all of the excitement she generates is warranted.  She is a force to be reckoned with, yet explains complex legal issues in a very clear way.  And, while she may be the oldest member of the Supreme Court, she is arguably the hippest! You may have even heard of her nickname, the Notorious R.B.G. (a mashup of her initials and the name of late rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.).  When asked about her nickname, she jokingly said that she and the rapper did have at least one thing in common: they both grew up in Brooklyn, New York.

Justice Ginsburg is a great woman who has made America a better place!  I am grateful for her service to our country and consider myself so fortunate to have received her during her visit to Korea.

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