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No United States Supreme Court Justice has embodied the core tenets of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys more so than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
We, as elder law and special needs attorneys, may not have always realized it, but throughout Justice Ginsburg’s extraordinary career as a law professor, civil rights attorney, appellate judge, and Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, she consistently and brilliantly educated, inspired, and served us, and our clientele.
One of the most powerful examples of how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (or RBG as she has affectionately come to be known) epitomized the tenets of NAELA was her opinion in the U.S. Supreme Court landmark disability rights case, Olmstead v. L.C.1
In the Olmstead
opinion, which is widely considered by many activists to be the Brown v. Board of Education
of the disability rights movement,2
the Court held that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities is a type of discrimination prohibited by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Court further held that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when (1) such services are appropriate; (2) the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and (3) community-based services can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the public entity and the needs of others who are receiving disability services from the public entity.3
Justice Ginsburg’s opinion in Olmstead
articulated many of the disability rights principles that we take for granted today, namely that “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,”4
and that “confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement, and cultural enrichment.”5
We, as elder law and special needs attorneys, have seen first-hand not only how Justice Ginsburg’s Olmstead
opinion has solidified in the law what may seem so obviously right and just to us today, but how it has impacted the lives of our clients and their families. Justice Ginsburg’s reasoning in Olmstead
propagated a philosophy of maximizing independence for persons with disabilities, leading Congress and federal agencies to enact laws and policies that have resulted in increased access to home and community-based services for persons with disabilities, as well as for people in need of long-term care services.6
Attaining these services took enormous efforts from many, but none of it would have been possible without the Olmstead decision leading the way. We must honor Justice Ginsburg’s pursuit of equality by remaining vigilant in our efforts to maintain and expand upon these services for the benefit of our clients and society.
If Justice Ginsburg’s sole contribution to the field of elder and special needs law was her opinion for the landmark disability rights case, Olmstead v. L.C.
, it would probably have been enough to make her an honorary NAELA member. Her impact, however, on our profession and those we serve, extends far beyond Olmstead, as she had become a source of inspiration for the next generation of NAELA members and an incredible reflection of the clientele we serve.
Justice Ginsburg’s fiery dissents helped garner her the nickname, “The Notorious R.B.G.” after the late rapper, and fellow Brooklyn native, Notorious B.I.G. Throughout the later years of her career, she became the subject of Saturday Night Live comedy skits, internet memes, an Oscar-nominated documentary, and a major motion picture based on her life. This media attention helped raise her to a kind of “pop icon” status that introduced her to a new generation of young women, civil rights activists, and attorneys. To this new generation of RBG fans, Justice Ginsburg was a source of inspiration and admired as an American hero.
Throughout her time on the bench, she stood firm in her convictions, bucked the system when she felt it was appropriate, and was a stalwart supporter of equal rights. Despite her stinging and frequent dissents, Justice Ginsburg maintained civil relationships with her colleagues regardless of their legal and/or political opinions, which was evidenced by her close friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia.
She lived her whole life with resilience, brilliance, and grit. She was a cancer survivor, widow, and grandmother who exercised regularly and was known to work late into the night, often trading sleep with legal research and drafting opinions and dissents. Justice Ginsburg’s life and career superbly illustrated the kind of strong moral backbone, genuine decency, and professional decorum that everyone within the branches of our government and our society as a whole should strive to emulate.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a member of the U.S. Supreme Court for the past 27 years from the age of 60 until her death at 87. Justice Ginsburg’s tenacious and brilliant legal opinions and remarkable work ethic continued until the very end of her life.
As elder and special needs law attorneys, we have the unique experience of working with some of the most remarkable people, many of whom have lived through profound challenges, who fought to protect and preserve our rights, and who continue to be the backbone of our families and communities. Unfortunately, our clientele is too often discounted by our society and is presumed to lack the physical and mental stamina necessary to handle certain jobs simply because of their age. Justice Ginsberg’s brilliance and incredible work ethic during her life and time on the Supreme Court was not only a reflection of our clientele, but also a retort to anyone who would question the capabilities of senior citizens.
In conclusion, elder law and special needs planning attorneys, our clientele, and society as a whole, owe Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg a debt of gratitude for her unparalleled legal career, inspirational life, and relentless pursuit of equality under the law.
1 Olmstead v. L.C.
, 527 U.S. 581 (1999).
Mary C. Cerreto, Olmstead: The Brown v. Board of Education for Disability Rights
, 3 Loy J. Pub. Int. L. 47, 47 (2001).
3 See Olmstead
, 527 U.S. at 607.
, at 600.
, at 601.
, e.g., Eric Carlson and Gene Coffey, Nat’l Senior Citizens Law Center, 10-Plus Years After the Olmstead Ruling: Progress, Problems, and Opportunities
10 (2010), available at http://www.nsclc.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/NSCLC-Olmstead-Report-LT.pdf