Advocate Lawyers Make Impact Felt on U.S. Supreme Court, Constitution

Article excerpt

By James H. Rubin WASHINGTON - A sign on the bookshelf in Erwin N. Griswold's law office says: ``Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.''

It is a reminder, he explains. ``You win some and you lose some.''

In his 82 years, Griswold knows about winning and losing in the Supreme Court, where he and other lawyers have helped shape a Constitution that marks its bicentennial anniversary this year.

Although no person alive has appeared as an advocate before the nation's highest court more often than Griswold - 127 cases in a career spanning 57 years - he is at a loss to assess his influence.

But others among the elite group of lawyers who have practiced frequently before the court - successors to such 19th century advocates as Daniel Webster and Francis Scott Key - believe their efforts have had an impact.

``The quality of advocacy can have an effect on the court's work,'' says Rex E. Lee, like Griswold a former solicitor general, the federal government's top-ranking courtroom lawyer. ``It can help in affecting the outcome and, more often, it can assist the court in writing a better opinion.''

One area of constitutional law in which advocates appear to have played a leading role involves the battle for sexual equality.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now a federal appeals court judge, was on the cutting edge of the women's movement.

``The equal status of men and women before the law would not have figured as a featured topic in a celebration of the Constitution's centennial 100 years ago,'' Ginsburg said in a recent speech on social change in the United States.

When the American Civil Liberties Union decided it was time to join the legal fight for such equality in the early 1970s, it picked Ginsburg, now 54, to lead a special project on women's rights litigation.

The Supreme Court responded quickly. For the first time in its history, the court in 1971 threw out a state law on grounds it discriminated against women.

The justices overturned an Idaho law that gave preference to men in serving as administrators of estates of children without wills.

But the task confronting Ginsburg and her allies in that case, and a series of others that followed, was complicated by the fact that many of the challenged laws seemingly gave women extra legal protection.

``Classifications involving women had been seen as benign,'' Ginsburg says, because they treated women as more vulnerable and needing greater protection.

``Beneath the surface, these qualifications served to keep women in their place,'' she says. ``It was an education process. Gentlemen of a certain age think, `I take good care of my wife and daughter.' They had to be made to see that the classification was not God-given. It was created by men.''

The ACLU's strategy for dislodging such stereotypes was to bring a series of appeals that would create a foundation for each succeeding case until the goal of constitutionally guaranteed sexual equality was reached. …

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