How Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s approach to law left a lasting impact on Kenai attorneys

Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands at center for a photo with five other attorneys
From left: Judy Peavey-Derr, Lance Joanis, Jennifer Joanis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Allen Derr and Zannia Rowland. Alaska Bar Association vice president Jennifer Joanis said her stepfather Allen Derr and Ginsburg were lifelong friends. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Joanis)

When news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death came Friday, many across the country reflected on her legacy and tenure at the Supreme Court. For some attorneys in Kenai, her influence hits closer to home.

Ginsburg, a staunch advocate for women’s rights, delivered an address at the Alaska Bar Association Convention in Anchorage back in 2008. Jennifer Wells, a Kenai Superior Court judge, was at the event.

“She gave this amazing lecture which I have remembered to this day about the power of dissent and the role of dissenting opinions,” Wells said. “And it’s something I’d never really given any thought to.”

Wells met Ginsburg at the convention. She remembered the Supreme Court justice being elegant, soft-spoken, tiny at 5 foot 1 inch and very impressive.

“I think before that I hadn’t really valued her fully, because it’s the dissent that she most often spoke for,” Wells said. “But when you think about it, being able to stand up for the dissent is a rare quality because most of the pressure on all of us all the time, everywhere, is to make nice and figure out a way to go on with the majority.”

Local attorney Kristine Schmidt attended Ginsburg’s talk, too. Ginsburg’s husband, Martin, was also at the convention teaching a class on tax law.

“So it was real inspiring because Alaska, we think of ourselves as pretty out of the way, and being able to have these giant figures come here and just see them as regular people is really inspiring,” Schmidt said.

Ginsburg tackled sex-based discrimination in the cases she took on and in her approach to the profession. She was the second female justice on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg’s impact on female attorneys in Kenai was not diluted with distance. A decade after her visit, the local branch of the bar association held a screening of “On the Basis of Sex,” the biopic about Ginsburg, for Women’s History Month.

Association vice president and local attorney Jennifer Joanis said several local women attorneys spoke on a panel at the event.

“We had a mother-daughter attorney team on the panel, and they talked about their different experiences in law school and just how vastly different those were,” Joanis said. “And we had young attorneys on the panel and older attorneys on the panel just talking about their experiences in law school, in law, their legal profession, and how much it has changed and how much easier it has become for women in law over the years.”

Wells was there, too, and said the movie made her grateful for Ginsburg and the progress made in Alaska.

“Every woman who was at the showing of the movie, every local attorney, was so grateful for her pioneering work,” she said. “I couldn’t have the career I have without women like her, but her specifically.”

Joanis was particularly excited to see the movie because of a personal connection to the late justice.

A letter address to Allen Derr from Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg asks Allen Derr to read a letter for the memorial of Sally Reed (in photograph), who fought to manage her late stepson’s estate. Ginsburg wrote the brief for the pro bono case. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Joanis)

“My stepfather was living in Idaho, and there was a case that he had taken to the lower courts — it was a probate case — where a woman, divorced woman, her son, her adopted son had committed suicide,” she said. “And she was fighting to manage that estate. And the law gave preference to a male, just arbitrary preference. And so he took on the case pro bono in order to fight this case for her so that she could manage this meager estate. And that case ended up being taken all the way to the Supreme Court where he partnered with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a college professor at the time, who wrote the brief for that case. And so they became lifelong friends.”

The court ruled that Idaho’s unequal gender preference in that instance was unconstitutional. It was the first time the Supreme Court argued that the 14th Amendment protected women’s rights. Ginsburg referred to it as a “turning point case.”

Joanis also met Ginsburg and was struck by the juxtaposition of her small stature with the enormity of her impact. Schmidt was impressed by Ginsburg’s civility toward those with whom she did not agree, like the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a good friend.

“Civility in our profession is an issue right now, so her modeling of civility and collegiality is really important,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt became aware of Ginsburg’s impact in the 1970s in law school. Later, once Ginsburg was on the court, Schmidt read her famous dissents like the Lilly Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire case of 2007. Ginsburg’s dissent in that case later inspired the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Ginsburg believed in taking a long-term approach to the law, said Schmidt, acknowledging that a dissenting argument might impact legislation down the road.

“When I think of her, I think of ‘what am I doing that can help the future? What in my practice is going to help people in the future? What can I do to make a difference?’” Schmidt said.

Mourners held a silent vigil for Ginsburg in Juneau this weekend, and there were additional gatherings in Fairbanks and Anchorage.

Ginsburg’s death also hit home for Alaskans when Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced she would not be voting for a Supreme Court justice to replace Ginsburg until after the election this November. She later backtracked, saying that she could not rule out the possibility that she would vote to confirm a nominee.