Communication Currents

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Cautiously Communicative

October 1, 2010
General Communication Studies

Nichola Gutgold has begun researching the communication styles and strategies of the women Supreme Court justices.. She was delighted when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg granted her request for a personal interview and she met the justice in her chambers in Washington, D.C. on August 19, 2010. 

Her speaking style is slow, meticulous and careful.  Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s communication is illustrative of her approach to the law:  just what is needed.  She tells her law clerks:  “Don’t write sentences that people will have to re-read.  Same is true of public speaking.”  Hers is  direct, to the point and never excessive.  She says:  “My effort was to speak slowly so that that ideas could be grasped.”  In her public speeches her style is professorial, hearkening back to her days as a law professor, first at Rutgers School of Law, briefly at Harvard Law School and at Columbia School of Law. 

In 2007 when she read two stinging dissents from the bench, to criticize the majority for opinions that she said jeopardize women's rights, she was indeed, deliberately making a statement.  In one case, in which the court upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act seven years after having struck down a similar state law, she noted that the Court was now “differently composed than it was when we last considered a restrictive abortion regulation.”  In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, speaking for the three other dissenting justices, Justice Ginsburg's voice was even and measured, and the message was potent and immediately impactful.  In this utterance she was speaking to, as she put it:  “convey a message I thought was so right and proper.” 

In her dissent she described the Court’s reading of the law as “parsimonious” and added: “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”  Lilly Ledbetter was a supervisor at Goodyear Tire and Rubber plant in Gadsden, Alabama, from 1979 until her retirement in 1998. For most of those years, she worked as an area manager, a position largely occupied by men. Initially, Ledbetter’s salary was in line with the salaries of men performing substantially similar work. Over time, however, her pay slipped in comparison to the pay of male area managers with equal or less seniority. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act restored workers' rights to challenge illegal wage discrimination in the federal courts.

In a personal interview in her Chambers at the Supreme Court, I asked her why reading her dissent aloud felt like a powerful way to express her views.   She told me: 

“Most often I do not announce.  I write it out.  But if I want to emphasize that the Court not only got it wrong, but egregiously so, reading aloud a dissent can have an immediate objective.”  

Only six times previous to 2007, in thirteen years on the Court did Justice Ginsburg read her dissent aloud, and never twice in one term.  She told her audience at a lecture in 2007:  “I described from the bench two dissenting opinions.  The first deplored the Court’s approval of a federal ban on so-called ‘partial-birth abortion.’  Departing from decades of precedent, the Court placed its imprimatur on an anti-abortion measure that lacked an exception safeguarding a woman’s health.  Next, I objected to the Court’s decision making it virtually impossible for victims of pay discrimination to mount a successful Title VII challenge.”  She told me that perhaps her dissent of the Court’s approval of a federal ban on partial-birth abortion “will appeal to a future Court.”   She added:  “I think long term my opinion will be the law.” 

The “immediate impact” of Justice Ginsburg’s oral dissent was realized in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear case.  She told me that “Several members of Congress responded within days after the Court’s decision was issued.”   With Lilly Ledbetter present, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law on January 29, 2009.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s public speaking is similar to her strategy on behalf of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU in the 1970s:  slowly, meticulously, carefully and just what is needed.  She reflected on her life’s work and said, slowly and distinctly:   “What a luxury I had to be an advocate for people who needed my services and  to work for a cause for society.”

About the author (s)

Nichola D. Gutgold

Pennsylvania State University

Associate Professor