Photo taken 1999. From left: Frances Grant Loring, Memphis attorney, Justice Ginsberg, Will Zoccola, attorney at Mason Zoccola and Maria Zoccola, daughter of Barbara and Will Zoccola.
I am one of the few Memphians who had the fortunate opportunity to spend some time in person with the Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
I was first impacted by Justice Ginsberg when I applied to law school. I applied to attend Washington and Lee University School of Law (W & L) in Virginia in 1983. Little did I know that if I would have applied seven years earlier in 1976, I would have been denied entrance because I was a woman. Before she was on the Supreme Court, Ginsberg was on the American Bar Association’s committee to accredit law schools. The ABA committee, led by Ginsberg informed W & L that they would lose accreditation for their law school if they did not admit women. The administration at W & L decided to allow women at the law school in 1976, opening the path for me to apply in 1983.
I first met Justice Ginsberg in 1999 at the U.S. Supreme Court. I was there with my husband and children to be sworn in to the U.S. Supreme Court for an event organized by the Association for Women Attorneys (AWA). We had asked Justice Sandra Day O’Conner to come to a reception put on by the AWA in one of the meeting rooms at the Supreme Court following our induction. Justice O’Conner was unable to attend our reception. During that reception, Denice McCrary and I had gone to the restroom when we happened to see that Justice Ginsberg was at a reception for the Texas women’s bar association. Denise and I went into the reception, waited our turn in line to speak to the Justice and asked her if she would come to our reception when she was finished. She kindly obliged and our group was thrilled to get to meet her. Our daughter was 6 years old and Justice Ginsberg agreed to this photo with her.
Fast forward to 2006 when I was president of the Memphis Bar Association and decided to invite Justice Ginsberg to speak at the annual meeting. Fortunately, Shepherd S. Tate, an attorney with the Martin Tate law firm, knew Ginsberg from when he served as president of the American Bar Association, so he called her and invited her to speak. She accepted his invitation. Not only did she speak to a sold-out dinner at the Peabody where she shared her thoughts on the Supreme Court, she also went to a reception prior to the dinner for attorneys.
The evening before the annual meeting, she attended a dinner for local judges and bar association officers and directors. And since she was an art aficionado, she wanted to see our local art galleries. Shep Tate set up a private tour of the Brooks Museum and of the Dixon Gallery and I attended both showings with her.
I also had the great privilege of going on a private tour of the National Civil Rights Museum with her and having the Reverend Samuel “Billy” Kyles, who had been great friends with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as our tour host. Throughout the museum, Justice Ginsberg recognized photos of people she had worked with on the women’s movement.
When we got to the room in the museum that Dr. King had stayed the night he was shot and killed on the balcony, Reverend Kyles told the story of what happened the night Dr. King was killed. His account of the facts was very vibrant and compelling, starting with how they were talking “preacher’s talk” that evening when Dr. King decided to go out on the balcony. I could tell by the tears that dripped slightly from Justice Ginsberg’s somber face that she was as moved as I was. I felt so privileged to be able to share that poignant moment in time with such national icons as Reverend Kyles and Justice Ginsberg.
Justice Ginsberg was great friends with Justice Antonin Scalia. Polar opposites on the political spectrum, they found friendship through their love of Opera and spent time together with their spouses every New Year’s Eve and many other occasions. Because of their friendship, Justice Ginsberg was able to persuade Justice Scalia to accept our invitation to speak at the Memphis Bar Foundation’s annual dinner the year after she spoke in Memphis.
Not long after Justice Ginsberg was in Memphis, my daughter’s 8th grade class at St. Mary’s was planning a trip to Washington, D.C. I contacted Justice Ginsberg’s staff and set up an opportunity for the girls to meet Justice Ginsberg at a reception in one of the Supreme Court meeting rooms. The girls enjoyed meeting the only current female Supreme Court Justice at that time. A few years ago, I saw a mother of one of those 8th graders, whose daughter is now in medical school. The mom remarked to me how much it meant for her daughter to get to meet Justice Ginsberg and how it had been a great inspiration for her.
In the past few years, Justice Ginsberg has become a national hero to the younger generation, inspiring her “Notorious RBG” tag and a documentary about her life reverberated through all the generations. There has even been a Hollywood movie, called “On the Basis of Sex” which depicts parts of her life and focuses on the Weisberger v.Wiesenfeld case that touted equality for men and women, valuing caring for family as much as working for pay. In that case, Mr. Weisenberger sought to receive social security benefits from his deceased wife’s benefits. He was denied because the statute allowed “mothers” to receive benefits but fathers were not named in the statute. Ginsberg fought to have men treated equally to women for such benefits because “the same cage that holds women as homemakers also holds men as breadwinners.” She argued that no cage should hold back anyone and everyone should be able to make their choice and not be discriminated against because of their gender.
She again fought for women and men to be treated equally in her opinion in United States v. Virginia Military Institute. The VMI case in 1999 hit close to home for me because VMI is in the same small town in Virginia (Lexington) as Washington and Lee University School of Law, my law school.
Justice Ginsberg is an icon for the ages. She worked tirelessly to bring equality for all. I feel very privileged to have had an opportunity to view a bit of her magic in person. When asked about what makes a meaningful life, she said, “To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself but for one’s community.” Justice Ginsberg made life better for a lot of people who are less fortunate than her and gave a voice to those who had none.