by Alison Guffey, 3L
On this day 20 years ago, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg visited the Georgia State University College of Law to deliver the 32nd Henry J. Miller lecture. The topic of her lecture was “Little Known Pages from the Supreme Court’s History,” and her focus was on re-telling the accounts of two women: Burnita Shelton Matthews, the first woman to be appointed as a Federal District Court judge, and Malvina Harlan, wife of Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and author of a memoir titled, “Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911.”
One particular story highlighted by Justice Ginsburg from Malvina’s memoir featured Malvina inspiring her husband to finish his dissent in the Civil Rights cases by swapping his inkstand for one with a different history: the very inkstand that was used by Justice Taney in composing the Dred Scott opinion. Justice Harlan knew of this inkstand’s history, and by writing with the same inkwell that decades earlier had “tighten[ed] the shackles of slavery,” Justice Harlan finished his dissent and powerfully asserted the need to “protect the recently emancipated slaves in the enjoyment of equal civil rights.”
Ginsburg told this story of poetic justice, of an inkstand in need of absolution, and she wondered of the pen in need of absolution in her own career. She determined the next time her thoughts on an opinion refuse to flow easily, she may visit the pen “that Judge Justice Bradley used to write his now-infamous concurring opinion in Myra Bradwell’s case, Bradwell v. Illinois, an 1873 decision upholding a state’s right to exclude women from the practice of law.”
Without ever directly addressing why Justice Bradley’s pen would be in need of absolution, Justice Ginsburg spoke of a photograph that is taken periodically of the Supreme Court Justice’s spouses. The audience knowingly chuckled while Justice Ginsburg explained that, with her and Justice O’Connor on the Supreme Court, “the subject of these photographs have changed beyond anything Justice Bradley or even Justice Harlan would have contemplated.”
Justice Ginsburg’s lecture was poised, clear, and moving as she masterfully led the audience through monumental moments in the Supreme Court’s history that came from the lives of Burnita Shelton Matthews and Malvina Harlan. Georgia State Law’s own Professor Mary Radford was in attendance for Justice Ginsburg’s lecture, and had the opportunity to speak with her one-on-one. Of this experience, Radford reflects on Justice Ginsburg’s “dignity and grace,” her “shy smile, almost embarrassed by the amount of attention that was flowing her way,” and recalls that Justice Ginsburg “greeted each individual, from student to faculty member to judge to local dignitary, with a quiet smile and a light handshake . . . wearing black lace gloves.” Professor Radford sums up the day: “An uninformed observer would probably have been astounded to learn that this unassuming, soft-spoken, petite woman was in fact one of the most powerful, insightful, and influential legal thinkers of our time.”
It is undeniable the impact Ruth Bader Ginsburg left on the nation and the world. On February 13, 2003, she visited our campus in celebration of GSU Law’s 20th anniversary. This year, as GSU Law celebrates its 40th anniversary, we take time to recount her lecture and remember her legacy. To watch Justice Ginsburg’s lecture, learn about other notable visitors, and read about the history of the Georgia State University College of Law, check out GSU Law’s 40th Anniversary Exhibit here.
 Harlan, M.S. and Przybyszewski, L. (2003) in Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911. New York: Modern Library, pp. 113–114.
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