Blog Archives

The True Story of “On the Basis of Sex” | History | Smithsonian

Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was the first gender-discrimination suit Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in court

Source: The True Story of “On the Basis of Sex” | History | Smithsonian

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become, in her 25th year on the Supreme Court, a bona fide pop-culture icon. She has pithy comebacks (slipped into precisely worded dissents), superhuman strength (she can do 20-plus pushups), and an instantly recognizable getup (black robe, lacy collar, scrunchie). Now On the Basis of Sex, a Ginsburg biopic starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband, Martin, is hitting theaters on Christmas Day with the aim of bringing to light her early legal career for those who might not know much about it. The film focuses on the very first gender-discrimination case Ginsburg argued in court, long before “SNL” started devoting sketches to her legal acumen: Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue.

Moritz doesn’t number among the landmark gender-discrimination cases Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court—it’s a lesser-known tax law case argued in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals over an up-to-$600 tax deduction for caregiver expenses. The film’s screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who is also Ginsburg’s nephew, said in an interview with The Wrap that he chose the case as the terra firma for his script because “the political and the personal were intertwined”: The future justice argued Moritz alongside her husband. But Moritz’s significance surpasses its narrative appeal. In winning a 63-year-old bachelor a minor tax refund, Ginsburg “found her foundational argument” against sex-based discrimination, says Jane Sharron De Hart, a professor emerita of history at University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of a biography of the justice.

Ginsburg’s Brooklyn upbringing (and the influence of her mother Celia) taught her not to limit her view of what women could accomplish, according to De Hart, but her path to women’s rights law was circuitous. She met Marty, a chemistry major, at Cornell, and the couple decided to enter the same field. De Hart relates that they considered business school, but Ruth pushed for law school, and after their marriage, Marty’s military service, and the birth of their daughter, Jane, the Ginsburgs wound up at Harvard Law School. There were only eight other women in her class.

Institutional sexism wasn’t the only barrier Ginsburg encountered. While Marty received treatment for testicular cancer in 1958, Ruth took on his coursework as well; when he landed a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School. Along the way, she shattered glass ceilings and racked up accolades: first female member of the Harvard Law Review, tied for first in her class at Columbia. Come graduation, though, she found herself shut out from job opportunities until a Columbia professor flat-out refused to suggest any other clerkship candidates but her for a position under a New York District judge. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible,” she said later. After her clerkship, she entered academia, first studying civil procedure in Sweden and then becoming a professor at Rutgers Law School’s Newark campus.

As Ginsburg made her name in civil procedure, the basis of her work on behalf of women’s rights shifted into position. “Her view of feminism was very firmly shaped by Swedish feminism, which argued that to be both fully human, both men and women had to share in parental responsibilities and the burden and compensations of work,” explains De Hart. During the 1960s, Ginsburg read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, a cornerstone feminist text, and her students at Rutgers requested she teach a class on women and the law. In 1970, Ginsburg obliged and studied up accordingly. “Inside of a month I had read every federal decision ever written relating to women’s rights, also some state court decisions. That was no great feat, for there were precious few of them,” she said in a 2009 interview.

“It can be difficult in 2018 to imagine that so many laws distinguished between men and women or that so many laws restricted the rights of women, but that is where we were,” says Suzanne Goldberg, a professor at Columbia Law School. These laws ranged from the serious (widowers, assumed to be the family breadwinners, could not receive social security benefits from deceased wives, a provision of the Social Security Act Ginsburg would go on to challenge before the Supreme Court) to the downright absurd (in Wisconsin, female hairstylists couldn’t cut men’s hair). The Equal Pay Act, passed in 1963, was the first piece of federal legislation to prohibit sex-based discrimination. While the women’s liberation movement urged social change, around one-third of respondents to the 1972 General Social Survey (35 percent of men, and 28 percent of women) said they disapproved of a married woman working if her husband could support her.

Ginsburg chipped away at this legal precedent starting with small-potato ACLU cases in Newark, New Jersey. In one instance cited in Yale senior lecturer Fred Strebeigh’s book Equal: Women Reshape American Law, an ACLU intern and former student of Ginsburg’s sent her the case of Nora Simon, a woman unable to re-enlist in the military because she’d had a child, even though she’d put that child up for adoption after divorcing her husband. These local cases helped individuals—Ginsburg’s assistance enabled Simon to rejoin the armed forces—but weren’t shifting case law.

Moritz changed that. In the movie, the scene plays out in the same way the Ginsburgs have recounted it: in the fall of 1970, the couple was working in separate rooms in their house when Marty stumbled upon a tax court case and presented it to his wife. “Ruth replied with a warm and friendly snarl, ‘I don’t read tax cases,’” Marty wrote. But she read this one. A Denver bachelor named Charles Moritz, whose job in publishing required frequent travel, had represented himself in tax court and lost. He’d argued that it was unfair to deny him a tax deduction for the money he’d paid a caretaker for his 89-year-old mother, who was his dependent, simply because he was man who’d never married, when a single woman in the same situation would be entitled to the tax break. “This tax law sought to give a benefit to people who had to care for dependents,” explains Goldberg, “but could not imagine that a man would be doing so.”

It was a perfect test case. Marty worked to persuade Moritz to appeal and commit to taking the case to court to set a precedent even if the government offered to settle (which it did). Ruth secured a fiscal sponsor for the project, writing to an old summer-camp acquaintance at the ACLU, Melvin Wulf (played in the film by Justin Theroux), that she’d hit upon “as neat a craft as one could find to test sex-based discrimination against the Constitution.” Ginsburg penned a 40-odd-page brief, split the argument in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals with Marty (he took on the tax law for the first 12 minutes of the oral arguments; she, a courtroom novice, made the constitutional half of the case), and in November 1972, over a year later, the court ruled for Moritz, determining that the code made an “invidious discrimination based solely on sex” and therefore opposed the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process. It was the first time a provision of the Internal Revenue Code had been declared unconstitutional.

Moritz “could topple the whole damn system of discrimination,” Ginsburg’s character exclaims in On the Basis of Sex. In reality, another case set that precedent first as the 10th District dawdled: Reed v. Reed, a 1971 decision that marked the first time the Supreme Court struck down a law on the grounds of gender discrimination, finding that it violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee. Ginsburg helped clinch the landmark victory, not by arguing the case before the Court but by building upon the arguments she’d developed a few months earlier for Moritz—in her words, Reed’s “fraternal twin.”

In the spring of 1971, Ginsburg had sent her just-completed Moritz brief spelling out the constitutional argument against gender-based discrimination to other attorneys, including the ACLU’s general counsel, Norman Dorsen. Dorsen replied that it was “one of the very best presentations I have seen in a long time,” and sent that high praise along to Wulf. As Strebeigh’s book tells it, Ginsburg also mailed a copy of that same brief to Wulf and suggested that it might be useful in Reed, an upcoming case that revolved around a woman not being allowed to execute her dead son’s estate due to her gender, to the Supreme Court. “Have you thought about whether it would be appropriate to have a woman co-counsel in that case???” she ended the letter. Sally Reed’s original lawyer argued the case in court, but Ginsburg wrote a lengthy, social-science-stuffed brief, and, as a tribute to her legal predecessors, listed two influential feminist lawyers, Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray, as co-authors.

In 1972, Ginsburg became the first woman named a full professor at Columbia Law School and also the co-director of the ACLU’s fledgling Women’s Rights Project (alongside Ms. Magazine cofounder Brenda Feigen). Moritz also, unexpectedly, gave her a blueprint for the lawsuits the WRP would use to incrementally strengthen the legal case against gender-based discrimination. When the Ginsburgs won Moritz, the solicitor general, none other than Ruth’s former Harvard Law School dean Erwin Griswold (who’d not allowed Ginsburg to receive a Harvard Law degree when she’d transferred to Columbia) unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court to take the case. Griswold pointed out that the Moritz ruling put hundreds of statutes on unsteady legal footing—and he attached a computer-generated list, enumerating the laws in question. (Personal computers wouldn’t become available until the late 1970s, so Griswold’s staff would had to have visited the Department of Defense to make it.) In Ginsburg’s words, “It was a treasure trove.”

From there, the story charts a familiar course; Ginsburg went on to argue six gender-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning all but one. She was appointed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1980 and the Supreme Court in 1993, where she writes crackling dissents defending reproductive autonomy and affirmative action.

On the Basis of Sex ends with a shot of the young Ruth Bader Ginsburg walking up the steps of the Supreme Court before the camera pans to show RBG today on the marble stairs. The metaphor, while on-the-nose, is apt. In Moritz and Reed, says De Hart, the future Supreme Court justice “really thought through her demeanor and motives for all her future arguments. She would try to educate, she would not be confrontational or emotional, but she would try to bring the judges along to see the injustice of men not being able to get a benefit that women in comparable situations could get.”

Read more:
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12!
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter


New course on Supreme Court goes online – National Constitution Center

A new college-level course, on “The Supreme Court and American Politics,” went online this month with scores of students from around the world already signed up.  The course, prepared by Lyle Denniston, a contributor to Constitution Daily for the past seven years, is free.

Source: New course on Supreme Court goes online – National Constitution Center

A look at the closest Court confirmation ever – National Constitution Center

Today the U.S. Senate voted to confirm Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court by a vote of 51-49. Although the vote margin is narrow, it is not the narrowest margin in Supreme Court history.

On January 26, 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes nominated Matthews to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Noah Swayne. At the time, Hayes was a lame-duck president: James Garfield had won the presidential election just two months earlier and would take office two months later, in March.

Matthews resigned from the U.S. Senate to accept the nomination, but his nomination immediately faced significant opposition from his former Senate colleagues on several grounds. Many of the criticisms of Matthews seem to originate from broader criticisms of Hayes, who is among the most controversial presidents.

First, critics argued that the Matthews nomination was the result of improper patronage or even nepotism. Hayes and Matthews shared a close relationship: Matthews served under Hayes in the Civil War, married Hayes’s daughter, and is arguably responsible for Hayes winning the presidency in 1876 after one of the most contentious elections in American history.

Democratic candidate Samuel Tilden won the popular vote in the 1876 election. But Hayes and Tilden disputed how 20 of the Electoral College votes would be allocated. Whether those votes went to Hayes or Tilden would determine the outcome of the election. Congress created a bipartisan Electoral Commission to settle the dispute over the electoral votes,

Matthews represented Hayes before the Commission, which ultimately voted 8-7 to award the 20 votes to Hayes. For the next four years, Democrats questioned the legitimacy of Hayes’s presidency, even nicknaming him “Rutherfraud” Hayes. For many Democrats, questions about the legitimacy of Hayes’s presidency likely colored their views on Matthews’s Supreme Court nomination.

Second, some critics claimed that Matthews was beholden to the railroad industry. Matthews represented the railroad industry in private practice. His clients included one of the most famous 19th-century railroad tycoons, Jay Gould, who at one point controlled the largest railroad company in the country.

Many considered Hayes himself to be too friendly to the railroads. In Hayes’s first year in office, railroad labor strikes and riots broke out across the country, and Hayes ordered federal troops to quell riots in at least two states.

Third, Matthews had provoked the ire of some of his fellow Republicans by supporting silver to pay back public debts. Ironically, even though some claimed Matthews was too close to Hayes, he and Hayes disagreed on the silver proposal, which Hayes vetoed.

Fourth, some critics claimed that Matthews was an unprincipled political opportunist because although he claimed to be an abolitionist before the Civil War, in 1859 he prosecuted a newspaper editor for helping runaway slaves.

And finally, some Democrats were frustrated that Republicans had controlled the White House for 20 years—since President Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1861—all but locking Democrats out of the Supreme Court. Hayes had already successfully appointed two Justices to the Supreme Court before he nominated Matthews.

All of these criticisms converged into a perfect storm for one of the most antagonistic confirmation battles in Supreme Court history. The Republican-controlled Senate refused to confirm Matthews while Hayes was president, but when Garfield took office in 1881, he re-nominated Matthews to the Supreme Court.

Garfield faced criticism from nearly every corner for re-nominating the controversial Matthews. For example, the Boston Journal wrote that although “there can be no doubt” that Matthews was a “brilliant lawyer,” the paper worried that he lacked “that balance necessary to make him a member of the highest court in the Nation” and he failed to display the “judgment and judicial demeanor which are requisite in a Justice of the Supreme Court.” And the New York Timeseditorialized that Garfield had “repeated one of the most injudicious and objectionable acts of his predecessor,” but worse, had done so “without [Hayes’s] excuse” of a “personal debt” to Matthews.

To complicate Matthews’s nomination even more, when Congress convened on March 4, 1881, the Senate was split evenly, with thirty-seven Republicans, thirty-seven Democrats, and two independents. The Senate that convened in the 47th Congress is considered one of the most-gridlocked in history. Nevertheless, on May 12, the Senate voted 24-23 to confirm Matthews, with Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the vote.

Critics claimed that Matthews’s narrow confirmation to the Supreme Court’s would irreparably tarnish the Court’s reputation. For example, Harper’s Weekly featured a cartoon by famed political cartoonist Thomas Nash showing the Supreme Court’s “prestige” had collapsed under the weight of Matthews and his “one vote” margin. In strong rhetoric characteristic of many newspapers that weighed in on Matthews, the Philadelphia Times claimed that Matthews’s nomination was “one more step in the degradation” of the Supreme Court, that his narrow confirmation vote was proof “that a sort of moral dry-rot has taken hold” of the Senate, and that when Matthews “don[s] the robe” would be “the saddest thing yet witnessed by those who have watched with pain the gradual degradation of the bench.”

Although few now remember Matthews’s bitter confirmation battle, he is perhaps best remembered today for his 1886 opinion in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, which held that San Francisco violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by applying a laundry-shop regulation in a discriminatory fashion against Chinese laundry-shop owners.

Sheldon Gilbert is a Senior Constitutional Fellow at the National Constitution Center.

Source: A look at the closest Court confirmation ever – National Constitution Center

%d bloggers like this: