The HillVets community is well-versed in the politics and policies of both the Executive and Legislative branches of our government. The Judiciary can be a bit more of a mystery, particularly for those who did not study law. As an attorney and a professional woman, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg certainly had an impact on my life and career. But did you know that she also made a lasting impact on the military community? In addition to being a military spouse (her husband, Martin, served in the Army Reserves), RBG was involved in a number of cases that involved the military community and its policies. Here are the biggest:
Struck v. Department of Defense – Before RBG was a Supreme Court Justice, she worked for the American Civil Liberties Union. In that capacity, she represented Air Force Captain Susan Struck against the Department of Defense. Women in the military at that time were discharged for becoming mothers, which meant that pregnant women in uniform were forced to either leave the military or risk an abortion (which was illegal at that time). Captain Struck got pregnant, but as a Catholic, she would not pursue abortion, so the Air Force recommended an honorable discharge. However, Captain Struck did not want to leave the work she loved. Ginsburg won a stay (a delay, essentially) for Struck’s discharge, arguing that the only conspicuous difference between men and women was their ability to get pregnant. She also argued that no other temporary medical condition resulted in a de facto discharge, and that men in the military did not face an end to their careers when they became parents. Therefore, Struck’s constitutional rights of equal protection, privacy, and free exercise of religion were violated. Neither lower court agreed with Ginsburg’s arguments, but when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, the U.S. Solicitor General convinced the Air Force to abandon the policy. The Struck case remains largely unknown because the Supreme Court never actually heard oral arguments.
Frontiero v. Richardson – Once again, RBG’s work at the ACLU brought her to the Supreme Court, this time in a case related to military benefits. Sharron Frontiero was a lieutenant in the Air Force and applied for housing and medical benefits for her husband. While men in the military could claim their wives as dependents and get benefits for them automatically, women who served had to prove that their husbands were dependent on them for more than half their support. Frontiero marked Ginsburg’s first time delivering an actual oral argument in front of the Court. Justices Douglas, White, Marshall, and Brennan found the military’s benefit policy unconstitutional, because there was no reason why military wives needed benefits any more than military husbands. Justice Brennan also dismissed the Air Force’s argument that the policy was meant to save administrative costs by simply assuming that all wives were dependents (but not doing the same for husbands); on the contrary, by automatically granting benefits to wives who might not truly be dependents per the requirements, he said, the Air Force might actually be increasing its costs.
United States v. Virginia – Ginsburg was Justice Ginsburg when this landmark case regarding equal protection in the military reached the Supreme Court. The Virginia Military Institute (VMI) was Virginia’s only all-male public undergraduate college/university. The United States brought suit against the state of Virginia and VMI, claiming that the school’s admissions policy was unconstitutional because it violated the equal protection clause. In an attempt to avoid further legal challenges, Virginia proposed to create the Virginia Women’s Institute for Leadership (VWIL) as a comparable program for women. The Court ruled 7-1 (Justice Clarence Thomas’ son attended VMI, so he recused himself) that the admissions policy was unconstitutional, and that the creation of the VWIL was not a legally sufficient way to correct that injustice. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, held, “The VWIL program is a pale shadow of VMI in terms of the range of curricular choices and faculty stature, funding, prestige, alumni support and influence.” The VMI decision then became the benchmark case for any law that “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.” VMI toyed with the idea of going private to exempt itself from the 14th Amendment; however, after some back and forth with the Department of Defense, it began to admit women. U.S. v. Virginia continues to be taught in constitutional law courses in law schools across the country.
As you can see, Justice Ginsburg made a significant impact in the military community, particularly where women were concerned. And while the Supreme Court can seem esoteric, it is important for Americans to learn about and understand how our country’s laws are both developed AND challenged. Are there other military-related Supreme Court opinions that you find fascinating? Leave us a comment!