Sat, Jun 17, 2017 - Page 9 News List

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s feminism seems surprisingly retro

The Notorious RBG’s decision to remove a citizen rights exception on the basis of gender equality raises questions about the kind of feminism needed today

By Noah Feldman  /  Bloomberg View

At 84 years old, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a feminist icon and a figure of adulation to the young women who have nicknamed her the “Notorious RBG,” but is her 1970s version of feminism actually the one embraced by her fans today?

That question is put front and center by an opinion she authored that fits squarely into the classic Ginsburg paradigm.

The law under review made it easier for female US citizens living abroad to pass on citizenship to their children than for male citizens.

Ginsburg said the difference was unconstitutional, but she did not extend the women’s benefit to men: She took it away from women, leaving a much harsher law that seriously burdens passing on citizenship for both sexes equally.

US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts happily joined the opinion, while justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito concurred in the result. No justice dissented.

Woke this decision was not.

To understand where Ginsburg’s rather harsh ruling comes from, the starting point is with her pioneering efforts to litigate women’s rights issues on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union when she was a law professor at Rutgers University and then Columbia University.

In a series of carefully chosen, brilliantly argued cases before the US Supreme Court, Ginsburg persuaded the justices to strike down laws that overtly treated men and women differently.

Frequently, the laws that she challenged treated women better than men, not worse. Ginsburg liked to bring her cases representing male plaintiffs, which both changed the atmospherics and brought home that the equality between the sexes was not just a women’s issue.

The legal principle behind her efforts, which the court eventually adopted, was that laws must not rely on or embody generalizations or stereotypes of male or female gender roles.

Thus, when a law purported to give women some advantage, Ginsburg consistently argued that the advantage was unjustified.

As a concrete example, take the law at issue in Sessions v. Morales-Santana, the case Ginsburg ruled on this week.

The Immigration and Nationality Act says that for a married couple of which only one parent is a US citizen to pass along that citizenship to a child born outside the US, the citizen parent must have lived in the US for at least 10 years, five of them after the age of 14.

If the parents are unmarried, and the US citizen is the father, the same rule applies.

However, if the mother is the US citizen, US Congress made a different rule. Her child can become a citizen at birth if she has lived for one continuous year in the US at any point in her life.

In defense of the law, the federal government argued that it was justified by Congress’ desire to be sure that a child born outside the US has a strong connection to the country.

The government also suggested that Congress might have been worried about creating stateless children in case other governments declined to pass down citizenship from unmarried fathers.

However, to Ginsburg, Congress’ action on behalf of the citizenship interests of women living abroad was a perfect example of the stereotyping she has fought against as a lawyer and justice.

Citing a raft of cases that she argued and authored, she held that the difference relied on “overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities or preferences of males and females.”

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