Radical social change
Thursday, January 31, 2019
Justinian in Critics' Corner, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sex discrimination

Tax deductions, gender discrimination and the US Constitution get a workout in On the Basis of Sex ... Ruth and Marty Ginsburg's great case, together ... Tenth Circuit bowled over by RBG's five minute final submission ... Breaching the legislative dam against equality ... Miss Lumière at the preview  

RBG: words matterLawyers as heroes - who would have thought? 

Well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg did, as far back as 1959 when she was one of only nine female students in her class at Harvard, then America's most prestigious and crustily male law school.

A new film, On the Basis of Sex, dramatises the luminous and brilliant early career of Ginsburg, one of the few remaining liberal voices on the current US Supreme Court, who at 85 is disinclined to step down while Trumpian insanity prevails in the White House.

Unsurprisingly, the film is directed by a woman, Mimi Leder, and is really one long feminist battle cry, albeit a skilfully acted and directed one (the usual Yankee hokeyness aside).

The screenplay, by Ruth Ginsburg's nephew Daniel Stiepleman, errs on the sentimental side, but to be fair, it's a sentimental tale of an extraordinary marriage based on (shock, horror), intellectual compatibility, mutual respect and love.

Even today's audiences might be stunned to find that right from the beginning, in cookie-cutter fifties America, Marty and Ruth ("Kiki") Ginsburg enjoyed a true partnership of equals. 

At home, he does most of the cooking (she's a danger in the kitchen) and shares childcare. He champions her intellectual smarts (she consistently tops her class) and together they prepare the case that will see the beginning of the end of gender discrimination laws in the US: Moritz v Commissioner of Internal Revenue

Interestingly, it's a tax case brought to Ruth Ginsburg's attention by Marty, a brilliant tax attorney in his own right, while she's working as a law professor at Rutgers University. 

Ruth ends up in academia, not by choice, but because no one (read male) will give her a job to practise law in New York, despite her academic credentials (she completed her law degree at Columbia University in typically stunning style).  

There's a terrific scene in which a young, feisty Ginsburg is interviewed by a middle-aged male partner in a less than top rank New York firm.

As she demonstrates her aptitude and passion for the practice of law, Atticus Finch style, he leers at her cleavage and finally tells her the firm is a "close knit" one and it couldn't possibly employ a woman because the partners' wives would "get jealous".

Hell hath no fury. And that's just this reviewer's reaction. The film is peppered with similar scenes of male entitlement drenched in disdain and in 2019 it guarantees the appropriate response - equal parts outrage and derision.

In fact, the main problem with On the Basis of Sex is that at times it sounds like one long feminist dissertation. More demonstration would have been better.

But I forget, this IS a film about the law, and as young Ruth says, "words matter".

There are plenty of them and the shape and content of the legal arguments, taken from court transcripts, are truly riveting, if that's your thing; it is your reviewer's.

Ruth, played rather well by Felicity Jones, has a way with words, as well as legal concepts. It's pure joy to let the fire of them engulf every legal scene she's in.

Her brilliance reaches its apotheosis in the US Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit, where in 1972 she takes on the tax code which denies her client, a single man Charles Moritz, a deduction for the nursing care of his frail mother. The code, like countless other laws, strived to protect traditional marriage, where the husband went out to work and the wife stayed home and did the cleaning and darning.

Deductible care expenses could only be made by a woman, a widower, divorced person, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalised. 

Ginsburg takes the dismissive reference made by the government's lawyer about "radical social change" as a launching pad to demolish 100 years of legal discrimination based on gender.

At five minutes 32 seconds, her rebuttal argument alone is worth the price of a ticket.  

Marty, played by the impossibly handsome Armie Hammer (last seen being impossibly handsome and homosexually entwined in Luca Guadagnino's film equivalent of a Norsca ad, Call Me By Your Name) is almost too good to be true. 

But he is true. In fact, all of it is. And that's a very good reason to see it.

On the Basis of Sex opens in selected cinemas February 7. 

Miss Lumière is Justinian's film reviewer 

Article originally appeared on Justinian: Australian legal magazine. News on lawyers and the law (http://justinian.com.au/).
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