In Memoriam: 10 Lessons from Justice Ginsberg

In Memoriam: 10 Lessons from Justice Ginsberg

Last month after Justice Ginsberg passed away, I went on one of those long solo rides to pedal things out.  I was hoping that time in the saddle would help settle the emotional torrent within me.  On one hand, I was feeling driven, empowered, and more motivated than ever to step things up a notch and do my part in carrying the social justice torch forward.  On the other, I was feeling overwhelmed by the compounding chaos in the world, exhausted by trauma, and spaghettied by all of the already-existing demands on my time.

As I rode, I contemplated how Justice Ginsberg, who had such remarkable physical and mental endurance, dealt with similar times.  Surely, RBG had to have gone through periods where her drive to do more was eclipsed by sheer exhaustion. Yet, somehow, she was usually able to rid herself of fatigue and propel the causes she believed in forward.

As I pedaled, climbed, and rode with the wind in my face, I asked myself:  How did she do it?  What were the personal and professional tactics that she used to sustain herself and achieve progress in the law?  How many of those tactics had I already started employing?  Which of them should I consider adopting in the future?  Then, I went on to consider whether some of Justice Ginsberg’s approaches to addressing gender discrimination could be used in my work as a bike advocate and help me to better tackle injustices on our roadways and inequities within our transportation systems?  If so, might others benefit from a list of tips and takeaways too?  Here’s what I came up with:

 1. Justice Ginsberg’s Waypaving May Be Exhausting, But It’s Also Energizing. 

Justice Ginsberg was a fan of the word “waypaver” and the concept of waypaving.  She spent her life taking chances other people were not willing or able to take.  Although waypaving is difficult and exhausting, it clearly energized Justice Ginsberg and those around her.  As active and sustainable transportation advocates, we are often told that concepts like complete streets, four-season walkable/bikeable communities, and Vision Zero are quixotic. At those times, we have the choice to either accept the status quo or do something different.  Each time we speak up, redesign a street scape, obtain a budgetary victory, change a law or a policy, we combat that exhaustion, energize the hive, and make it easier for ourselves and others to continue to waypave.

Bike Law Lauri Hiking

2. A Course on Gender Law Is About as Useful as a Course on Bike Law. 

When the waypaving in the bike advocacy world gets rough, we’ve got an amusing—yet valuable—RBG story to remind ourselves of the importance of our work.  Back in the 1960s when Justice Ginsberg was a professor at Rutgers Law School, she decided to study gender disparities in the law and teach a class on gender discrimination.  She did this despite a male contemporary at a neighboring law school reportedly ridiculing the idea and likening her course on gender discrimination to being about as useful as a course in bicycle law.  Just as Justice Ginsberg recognized the societal value of what she was studying and teaching when many of her colleagues were “not yet there,” we must continue to recognize the value of studying and teaching about the injustices and inequities on our roadways in our institutions of higher education, law enforcement academies, state agencies and elsewhere.  What we are doing in these places is as useful as Justice Ginsberg studying, teaching and speaking out about gender discrimination back in the 1960s.  Our time is here and now.  Our “me too” movement is next.

 3. Woo Justice When You Cannot Take Her By Storm. 

As we prepare for our own “me too” movement, it is important to recognize that seismic activity is often the product slow and discrete shifts of societal norms over time.  When Justice Ginsberg spoke at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on her nomination to the Supreme Court, she echoed this sentiment by sharing this Justice Cardoza quote: “Justice is not to be taken by storm. She is to be wooed by slow advances.”  As bike law and transportation advocates, it is easy to be outraged by the indefensible numbers of road traumas and traffic-related deaths occurring in our own neighborhoods and across the globe.  What we can learn from Justice Ginsberg and other waypavers, however, is that to be effective advocates in our courts and in other arenas, we need to be patient with the pace of justice.  We need to appreciate that we cannot always overhaul the law or agency policies and practices quickly or on our own.  Achieving safe roadways with equitable rights for all users will take time, precedent, and generations of committed advocates.  Each statutory amendment, regulatory change, opinion, jury verdict, edit to a policy and procedure manual, and newspaper article gets us one step closer to our movement for civil rights on the roadway taking hold.

4. Don’t Forget About What’s Not on the RBG T-Shirts.

In order for our movement to take hold, we have to reach people outside of our tribe.  In 2015, when Justice Ginsberg was asked at a Harvard luncheon about what advice she would give to young women, she replied, “Fight for things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”  As bike law advocates regularly involved in transportation and planning debates, traffic trauma litigation, and legislative battles, it is easy to get so caught up in arguing for what we know is right that we lose or forget about our audience and/or potential allies. RBG’s approach to social change reminds us to reach out to people outside of our regular circles, listen more, and look for shared interests.  Here in Maine, for example, as the Bicycle Coalition of Maine launches its “Slow ME Down” campaign (a statewide anti-speeding initiative), it is not only turning to bicyclists and walkers to support its efforts, but is also reaching out to landscaping and roadside construction companies, grocery stores with trucking/motor vehicle operations, downtown redevelopment committees, and the tourism industry.  The more we all take this approach to our advocacy work, the better.

5. It’s Not Just About the Bike.  

Along a similar vein, obtaining justice for bicyclists on the roadway doesn’t always mean focusing on bicycle law.  In the 1970s, Justice Ginsberg advanced the law for women by taking a tax law case involving a male caregiver deprived of a tax deduction on the basis of his gender.  See Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 469 F.2d 466 (1972).  Similarly, there are often times we can advance legal protections for bicyclists by focusing on other road users.  Several years ago, inspired by Justice Ginsberg’s approach, I testified at the Legislature in favor of a bill to increase the penalties for violating Maine’s “Move Over, Slow Down” law.  That bill was designed to protect law enforcement officers and first responders working on the side of the roadway by increasing the penalties for people who violated the law.   It was my hope that increased public awareness on the importance of slowing down for law enforcement officers and first responders on the side of the roadway could pave the way for increased protections for bicyclists and pedestrians.  This is but one example.  There are endless ways that we can employ Justice Ginsberg’s “broader thinking” approach to effectuate changes in law and societal norms.

6. Losing Can Mean Winning. 

Another great lesson I have learned from Justice Ginsberg is that plaintiffs can advance the law even when they “lose” their legal cases.  Justice Ginsberg made this clear in her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007), a case about pay discrimination and time limits for bringing claims.  In the Ledbetter case, she boldly and appropriately pointed out that “[t]he Court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination” and then went on to urge Congress to correct the injustice resulting from the Court’s decision through the legislative process.  As bike law advocates, we can continue to remind ourselves and others that that when we face roadblocks in one arena, we can often achieve victory in another.  There are indeed three branches of government, and using an injustice occurring in one arena to prompt a response in another, or recognizing which branch is most receptive to moving an idea forward to begin with, is part of being a strong advocate.

 7. Go Beyond Borders.

One of the reasons Justice Ginsberg grew into such an impactful leader involved her continued willingness to expose herself to new ways of thinking, living and problem solving.  In her twenties, she traveled to Sweden with her daughter where she experienced a world where women were more prominent in law schools, courts, and the legal community.  This allowed her a new perspective on women’s role in society and informed her work against gender inequities back home. Throughout her career she also continued to travel and demonstrate an interest in comparative law.  In addition, unlike some of her colleagues on the Supreme Court, she remained open to allowing international jurisprudence to impact her thinking and legal opinions.  As bike law advocates living in North America, we, too, can remind ourselves to look beyond borders for solutions and inspiration.  A few years ago when my own well was running dry, I found that a trip to Colombia, where I explored the impacts of the country’s visionary bike legislation, was just what I needed to keep my bike advocacy work on track in the United States.

 8. Find and Keep Your Martys.

All effective advocates need strong support networks to nurture and care for them, particularly in the midst of these isolating times.  Back in late 2016 when I read Justice Ginsberg’s book, My Own Words, I learned that as brilliant as an advocate as she was in her own right, her lifetime of accomplishments was also attributable to her choice in life partners.  Marty Ginsburg believed in and fostered his wife’s development as a legal scholar, mother, advocate and justice of the highest court in the United States. Instead of being threatened by his wife, he valued the fact that she had a brain and made sure it was put to use in the world.  To become and remain strong advocates, it is important that we find our Marty Ginsburgs, not just in our personal lives, but in our professional circles.  We all need  people who believe in us, encourage us to speak up and be brave, and  who actively seek opportunities to help us to grow.  So, go encircle yourself with good people, and make sure to take care of those people too.

 9. Befriend Scalias.

While we need our Martys, we also cannot grow into our best selves or become truly effective bike advocates without getting outside our own thought bubbles and circles.  One of the things I admired most about Justice Ginsberg was her friendship with Justice Scalia, with whom she often differed with on the bench. Not only did their friendship nurture Justice Ginsberg as a person, but it likely impacted her growth as a judge.  Spend time with, and listen carefully to, those who see the world from different lenses—not just with your adversaries, but with those who you believe to be working for.  Often our assumptions are wrong.  Opening yourself up to people who are different from you can only make your life, waypaving and advocacy journeys that much more rewarding.

 10. Tend to You.

Finally, keep yourself healthy.  Feed your brain, heart and soul with exercise, art, music.  Justice Ginsberg took the time to go to the gym, opera, synagogue, museums and other places that sustained her as a human being.  While advocacy takes time and dedication, we need to make sure to fuel ourselves with the things that bring us joy.

Bike Law Lauri Justice Ginsberg