JEFFREY ROSEN: What is the opinion that you’ve written that you think has done the most to advance civil liberties?

RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Oh, Jeff, that’s like asking which of my four grandchildren I prefer. There have been so many. Well, in the women’s rights arena, the Virginia Military Institute case. So many people said to me, “Why would women want to go to that school?” I wouldn’t, and perhaps you, a man, wouldn’t either, but there are women who are ready, willing, and able to undergo that form of education, so why should they be held back by artificial barriers?

There was a decision on the civil side that didn’t get much press, it’s called M.L.B. v. S.L.J. The Court’s precedent was, if you are too poor to afford counsel or to afford a transcript in a felony case, the state must provide legal assistance for you. M.L.B. was a woman facing a deprivation of parental-rights proceedings. She was charged with being an unfit mother. She lost in the first instance and wanted to appeal, but the state’s rule was, to appeal, you must purchase a transcript. M.L.B. didn’t have funds to pay for one. It was technically a civil case, but I was able to persuade a majority of the Court that depriving a parent of parental status is as devastating as a criminal conviction. The Court decided that, if she can’t get an appeal without a transcript, then the state must provide the transcript at no cost to her. That was a departure from the rigid separation of criminal cases, on the one hand, with the right to counsel paid by the state and a transcript paid by the state, and civil cases, in which you do not have those rights. You must be able to pay. I thought M.L.B. was a significant case in that regard, getting the Court to think about the impact on a woman like M.L.B. of being declared a non-parent. It is devastating, much worse than six months in jail.

—From Jeffrey Rosen’s recent interview of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which appeared in The New Republic. 

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Photo: Wake Forest University School of Law, Flickr