After 25 years, Ginsburg marks a personal triumph Justice writes ruling to end fight she pursued as a lawyer; THE VMI RULING


WASHINGTON -- For eight minutes, in a calm yet dramatic delivery, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced the Supreme Court's VMI ruling yesterday -- a personal triumph and an echo of a constitutional plea she began pursuing as a lawyer more than a quarter-century ago.

When she finished, she sat back in her high-backed chair, seemingly spent. She smiled faintly as she looked at the hushed courtroom.

For women's rights, the opinion she had released after five months of writing and negotiating was an advance that went considerably beyond the first constitutional victory women had won from the court. That earlier victory, which Ginsburg helped bring about as a lawyer, came 25 years ago.

Yesterday, as she read, a man sat beaming in the VIP section, a guest who knew what was coming: Martin Ginsburg. The justice's spouse is, she once said, "a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman's work -- whether at home or on the job -- is as important as a man's."

Much of her legal career had been dedicated to making that proposition into law.

Like many of the legal briefs Ginsburg had filed with the court over the years as a lawyer, the opinion of Justice Ginsburg in the VMI case was filled with recollections of how women had struggled to become a part of "We the People" -- a favorite phrase of hers.

The opinion said: "Through a century plus three decades and more of [America's] history, women did not count among voters composing 'We the People.' "

It was another half-century, her opinion recalled, before the Supreme Court began in 1971 -- partly at the urging of Ginsburg -- to find some measure of constitutional equality for women.

Her opinion also contained a telling footnote, referring to the writings of a 19th-century Harvard Medical School professor that condemned "identical education of the two sexes" as "a crime before God and humanity." Ginsburg's research often has turned up details to lend an ironic twist to her pleas for legal equality.

There were reminders that women used to be banned from practicing law. She did not include the fact that she once was turned down for a clerkship with a federal judge because she was a woman.

The women's rights campaigns of Ginsburg the lawyer came nearly full circle yesterday, as she spoke for six justices -- including the court's first woman, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

At a poignant moment in Ginsburg's recitation, when she mentioned the 1982 women's rights precedent written by O'Connor, Ginsburg looked toward O'Connor. Their eyes met, and Ginsburg nodded very slightly.

In fact, the 1982 ruling, in a case involving a man seeking to attend an all-women's nursing college in Mississippi, was a forerunner of yesterday's ruling. Ginsburg relied heavily upon it and, with the support of five of her colleagues, including O'Connor, went beyond it.

Just as O'Connor, as a junior justice in 1982, won the assignment to prepare the Mississippi opinion, Ginsburg, a third-year justice, drew the task yesterday.

She received the writing assignment, apparently, from Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He voted for the result, though not for Ginsburg's constitutional reasoning. As a member of the majority, he could have assigned the opinion to any justice in the majority.

The author was the only one to speak. Justice Antonin Scalia, the sole dissenter, had been reading avidly from papers in front of him but then simply leaned far back in his chair after she had finished, saying nothing.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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