Our country is reflecting on Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career and contributions to our country both as an advocate and as a jurist. She went to law school during a time that the legal profession consisted mostly of men. Justice Ginsberg graduated at the top of her law school class at Columbia Law in 1957 before teaching and then working for the American Civil Liberties Union. She was originally appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1980 before her nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1993.
In Minnesota, we also have the benefit of women jurists that succeeded at the time when the bench and bar was a man’s world. In 1982, Justice Mary Jeanne Coyne, for whom I clerked, was appointed to serve on the Minnesota Supreme Court, joining Justice Rosalie Wahl.
Like Justice Ginsberg, Justice Coyne finished law school in 1957. Justice Coyne graduated second in her class. She was only the fourth woman to ever serve on the prestigious Minnesota Law Review during law school. (Her law school classmates included Vice President Walter Mondale and federal judge Harry MacLaughlin). Justice Coyne went on to serve as a judicial clerk, working for Justice Leroy E. Matson at the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In the early 1960’s, it was a rarity for a woman to work as an attorney. And, when they did, it was usually in estate planning and family law. Justice Coyne, however, became an attorney for the Minneapolis firm now known as Meagher & Geer. She argued more than 100 cases before the Minnesota Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. She was known as one of the premier appellate advocacy attorneys in the history of the state. She was an appellate attorney legend.
I served as Justice Coyne’s law clerk during the 1989-90 term. At that time, her chambers were in the Capitol building overlooking the front lawn. She shared a reception area with Justice Wahl and the two had a close relationship as the only two women on the court. The two judges would often invite their law clerks for lunch together and we would order pizza from St. Paul’s famous Cossetta’s.
A true story that was often repeated around chambers involved Justice Coyne’s encounter with bats. Her attic at home had a bat infestation. Those bats would show up from time to time and fly around her house. Justice Coyne would enlist the help of law clerks armed with tennis rackets to help escort the bats out of the house. She would have a law clerk stand on one side of the room as they waved the rackets at the bats with an open window. Justice Wahl so enjoyed those stories and the law clerks could frequently hear the two high court justices making jokes about the bat trials.
The entire Court was a collegial group. Chief Justice Peter Popovich would pop into the law clerk area and remind us that “justice delayed is justice denied” in a not so subtle reminder to work hard. Justice Lawrence Yetka would tell us about the secret underground river below the Capitol and other historical tidbits. Justice John Simonett would enthusiastically recite “Casey at the Bat” and bring down the house. Justice Glenn Kelley would stop by the chambers to see how everyone was doing. Justice Sandy Keith would regale us with stories about his time as the Lieutenant Governor and in the Minnesota Senate.
Many legal historians frequently place a label on a judicial approach based upon the political party of the governor making the appointment to the court. Governor Rudy Perpich, a DFLer, appointed Justice Wahl and Governor Al Quie, a Republican, appointed Justice Coyne. As law clerks, we learned that those labels were not accurate. We quickly realized that the two of them came to the same result perhaps with different approaches. The political label did not apply. The two rarely disagreed over the outcome of a case.
Justice Coyne was also known for saying that, “A wise old man and a wise old woman often reach the same conclusion” – a statement that Justice Ginsberg had been known to quote. Each of these jurists have shown us that all citizens are important and contribute to our effort to create a more perfect union.