Justice Ginsburg keynote speaker at Pepperdine

The Supreme Court justice relates anecdotes about memoirs of Justice John Marshall Harlan’s wife, Malvina.

By Karen Heyman/Special to The Malibu Times

A sold-out black tie crowd of 900, including Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and several Los Angeles Superior Court judges, turned out to hear Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was the keynote speaker at Pepperdine University’s annual law school dinner, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Saturday evening.

At the dinner, Los Angeles attorney John J. Quinn, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Arnold and Porter, and former president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, received the Legal Hero Award in recognition of his “[exemplification] of the highest ideals of the profession.”

In her keynote, Ginsburg rigorously stuck to the tradition of Supreme Court justices, not commenting publicly on current issues. She instead promoted the memory of her favorite figure, the late Malvina Harlan, wife of Justice John Marshall Harlan, who served on the Supreme Court from 1877-1911. Ginsburg found Malvina Harlan’s memoirs when preparing a speech and was instrumental in getting them published. A popular edition is due out from Random House.

In the most personally inspiring of many anecdotes Ginsburg told about Malvina Harlan, she related the story of how Justice Harlan had come to own the inkstand used by Chief Justice Taney to write the 1857 Dred Scott decision, “which held that no person descended from a slave could ever be a citizen, and that the Constitution’s due process clause safe-guarded one man’s right to hold another in bondage.”

Nearly 20 years later, even after the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in the Civil War, the court still decided to strike down the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Harlan was the lone dissenter, but he sat for months, bogged down, in his wife’s words, “in a quagmire of logic, precedent and law.” It was Malvina who liberated his thoughts by presenting him with the inkstand that had once been used to legally sanction bondage.

“Perhaps,” commented Ginsburg wryly, “I will use a pen in need of absolution, too. Perhaps the one Justice Bradley used in Bradwell v. Illinois.” Her meaning was not lost on Pepperdine’s audience. The decision upheld a state’s right to exclude women from the practice of law.

Quinn kept his own remarks brief about his accomplishments, which include receiving the Learned Hand Award from the American Jewish Committee and the Distinguished Service Award from the United States Courts of the Ninth Circuit. He encouraged Pepperdine students and professional peers to carry on in public service, calling it “our responsibility and our legacy.”

Pepperdine University Law School Dean Richardson R. Lynn delivered the both encouraging and deflating news that admissions were up 37 percent due to “the counter-cyclical nature of law school applications.” In other words, if you were hoping to ride out the recession in graduate school-make other plans.

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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