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RBG’s legacy felt in Upper Valley legal circles

  • Vermont Law School student April Urbanowski in an undated photograph. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Marcie Hornick speaks at a candidate's forum in Canaan, N.H., on Aug. 27, 2018. Hornick is currently serving as Grafton County Attorney. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks to the American Bar Association House of Delegates after receiving the ABA Medal in San Francisco, Monday, Aug. 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2020 9:31:47 PM
Modified: 9/21/2020 9:36:13 PM

SOUTH ROYALTON — Vermont Law School student April Urbanowski was sitting down to dinner with her parents Friday night when her phone lit up with texts from friends.

Almost all the messages read the same thing: “RBG.”

“I immediately knew what it was,” Urbanowski said Monday. “I was utterly gutted.”

Around the same time, Sullivan County Assistant Attorney Christine Hilliard said she had just finished up a workout and checked her phone to find a similar barrage of messages from her old friends from the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.

“We were just all sort of beside ourselves,” Hilliard said.

Their reactions were not uncommon; after news broke Friday night that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, had died of complications of metastatic pancreas cancer, messages of grief began pouring out online.

Former President Barack Obama, remembering Ginsburg in a statement after her death, called her a “relentless litigator and an incisive jurist” and a “warrior for gender equality.”

Ginsburg, who was the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, has long been recognized as an advocate for gender equality and women’s rights. She enrolled in Harvard Law School before transferring to Columbia Law School, where she graduated in 1959. She worked for the American Civil Liberties Union and taught at Rutgers and Columbia University, where she was the first tenured female professor, before she was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 by then-President Bill Clinton.

For many women in law, including Urbanowski, Hilliard and others around the Upper Valley, Ginsburg was a symbol of strength: proof of what can be achieved, even in what long had been a male-dominated profession.

That was especially true for former New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Jean Burling, who was the first woman appointed to a judgeship in New Hampshire in 1979. Burling, who is now retired, said in an interview Monday that Ginsburg was a trailblazer for many women in law, including herself.

“(Law) was a field, from her experience and my own, that was not particularly welcoming to women,” Burling, a Cornish resident, said.

After graduating from law school in 1973, Burling remembers having to work hard to prove to her male colleagues that she, as a woman, was capable of being a lawyer. “It was an extraordinary time to try and break through that system. … I don’t think men understood how exclusive their control was.”

And yet, Burling said, Ginsburg gave her and other young female lawyers hope.

“She did not let anyone tell her that she couldn’t do something,” Burling said. “That’s the biggest thing that women can take from her life.”

The impact of Ginsburg’s legacy was felt on a younger generation of female lawyers as well. Hilliard, who graduated law school in 2018, said Ginsburg was an “icon” for many students in her law school.

“I think the entire female legal community feels her loss,” Hilliard said, adding that she has a photo of Ginsburg sitting on her desk at all times. “She really changed the way the game is played” and also “really believed in equal protection under the law for all people.”

Urbanowski said, as a third-year law student, she finds particular strength in Ginsburg’s history: she finished law school at the top of her class while she had a young child and her husband battled cancer.

“She worked so hard from where she was, to where she ended up,” Urbanowski said, adding that Ginsburg was proof of the strength of women.

But Ginsburg was also — ultimately — interested in justice for all people, not only women’s rights, Urbanowski added. She pointed to a well-known 1973 case involving a father who sought Social Security benefits after his wife died, but was denied because only mothers were eligible for payment.

Ginsburg, then-head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, famously represented the man in a lawsuit against the then-Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, and won.

“Of course she had this woman mindset, but she also made sure he got the equality he deserved,” Urbanowski said.

Former Windsor County State’s Attorney Robert Sand, now a professor at VLS, said Ginsburg’s two most enduring legacies will be “her brilliance as a litigator in waiting for just the right case and just the right plaintiff to push an issue and her remarkable friendship with Justice (Antonin) Scalia, with whom she was so ideologically divergent. That may be the most important lesson for our time.”

Ginsburg’s commitment to equality and justice was something Grafton County Attorney Marcie Hornick touched on as well.

“What it boils down to for me is there was some level of an ability to just rely on the way that she accessed issues and dealt with cases. You just could rely that there would be common sense and thoughtfulness,” Hornick said.

“She was this force to rely on,” she added.

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.

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