The film On the Basis of Sex, opening Christmas Day, is the second film this year about the life and legal career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The documentary RBG—released in May—has grossed $14 million so far and was recently shortlisted for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Both films depict Ginsburg’s important role in advancing gender equality by persuading the Supreme Court to expand its interpretation of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause to women.
During the 1970s, Ginsburg was general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union and director of its Women’s Rights Project, while she was also the first tenured female professor at Columbia University Law School. She personally argued six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court involving issues such as benefits under the Social Security Act, jury duty, and housing allowances for service members. She won five of them.
As a female lawyer, it struck me that nonlawyers watching the dramatization of Ginsburg’s advocacy may think that helping women with their legal problems requires an appellate superstar like Ginsburg. It does not. While the cases made it to the highest Court, the U.S. Supreme Court today only hears oral arguments in about 80 cases a year, of more than 7,000 petitions. Appellate advocacy like that depicted in On the Basis of Sex plays an important role in protecting and advancing the rights of women, but the vast majority of women with civil legal problems need help with issues at the bottom of the legal food chain: debt collections and credit issues, landlord-tenant disputes and evictions, and domestic relations law. The cases on screen began with other lawyers representing the litigants in trial or administrative courts, and they did not have the potential for large damages awards.
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Too often, women who need help with everyday legal problems don’t get it—which means they never get the chance to obtain justice for themselves, let alone set history-making precedent. In most U.S. jurisdictions, civil courts do not guarantee the right to an attorney for those unable to afford one. Figuring out the type of lawyer needed, finding one, and coming up with the money to pay one can be insurmountable obstacles. A 2014 American Bar Foundation study of men and women by University of Illinois professor Rebecca Sandefur found 46 percent of those reporting a civil justice situation dealt with it on their own, while 16 percent did nothing to address it.
Additionally, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau compiled by the National Women’s Law Center, women were 38 percent more likely than men to live in poverty, as women make up 63.1 percent of all people in poverty 65 and older.
Access to justice through legal aid providers—nonprofit organizations that offer free legal services to clients whose households typically earn less than 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines—is especially important to women.
For 2017, the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest funder of civil legal aid providers, reported that 71 percent of its clients were women. I am a volunteer attorney with CARPLS Legal Aid, (Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services), the largest provider of free legal services in Cook County, Illinois, and the first legal aid hotline in the United States. Nearly two-thirds of CARPLS clients each year are women.
In my work with CARPLS, I once advised a pregnant woman who called the CARPLS telephone hotline from her hospital room. While she was on bed rest and hospitalized, her landlord was threatening to lock out her children from their apartment and remove her belongings. I was able to assist her by informing her of her rights and drafting a letter for to her send to her landlord.
As another example, CARPLS provides legal advice and additional resources to survivors of domestic violence at its Domestic Relations help desk at Cook County’s main civil courthouse and through its telephone hotline. Because the process of regaining independence and safety can take years and is extremely difficult without a lawyer, it is important that all survivors have access to legal assistance so they can obtain safety, achieve economic stability, and support themselves and their families.
Ensuring that low- and moderate-income women receive the legal advice they need requires the continued support of legal aid providers through funding by federal and state governments, donations by foundations and individuals, and volunteer service by lawyers.
Few lawyers—female or male—in American history can equal Justice Ginsburg’s achievements in advancing the legal rights of women. But every lawyer can contribute to helping women attain justice.