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October 3, 2020, Adrian, Michigan – As the United States is engaged in controversy over President Trump’s nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, four Adrian Dominican Sisters who are attorneys continued to reflect on the impact of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney who served as Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation from 2010 to 2016, was inspired by her personal encounter with Justice Ginsburg in 2005. Sister Attracta was part of a group of Catholic University Law School graduates who were sworn in at the Supreme Court. While all Justices attended the swearing-in ceremony, Sister Attracta recalled, only Justices Anthony Kennedy and Ginsburg attended a reception hosted afterwards by Catholic University.
“She talked with the women in the group, and her message was to remember – always remember – those who are on the margins,” Sister Attracta recalled. “She said it’s wonderful now that we women have our voice in court to help others, but never forget those who have no one, or who have very few people who care about them.”
Through the years, Sister Attracta said, she continued to follow the work of Justice Ginsburg. “She was so wonderfully brave, and when she went to law school, she was one of very few women in her class,” Sister Attracta said. “She held on to what she knew was right and was willing to speak her mind and speak the truth.”
Justice Ginsburg “is primarily known for raising up the legal rights of women and bringing to the consciousness of the court the gender discrimination that had been buried within our legal system,” said Sister Patricia Siemen, OP, Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Congregation and an attorney.
Justice Ginsburg’s work to end discrimination against women became most evident in her opinion in the case of the United States v. Virginia, which ended the Virginia Military Institution’s long-standing prohibition against admitting women, Sister Patricia said. “When she wrote her opinion, she educated the court on gender discrimination and the violation of the 14th Amendment.”
But Justice Ginsburg went beyond defending the rights of women, Sister Patricia said. “Her interests were very much on protecting the legal rights of those who are often disadvantaged.”
Yet, while being a defender of human rights, “she never took on a shrill position but was always very dignified,” Sister Patricia said. Justice Ginsburg “chose to work within the system, knowing that significant change needs people within the system who can very judiciously maneuver legal reasoning to point out the blatant discrimination.” While supportive of people who chose to speak out in protests, Justice Ginsburg “used her quiet power to educate the people in her institution” about matters of justice.
Sister Carolyn Roeber, OP, a canon lawyer who also practiced civil law, noted that she might not have made it into law school and become a lawyer without Justice Ginsburg’s efforts toward the equality of men and women.
Also important, Sister Carolyn said, was Justice Ginsburg’s approach of promoting change one step at a time. “This incremental change is easier for people to adapt to,” she said. “It’s easier for people to see the benefit of incremental change rather than a 180-degree change.” Justice Ginsburg was also adept at considering the perspective of people she disagreed with and presenting her beliefs in a way that they could understand.
Sister Noreen Sharp, OP, who uses her training and experience as an attorney to benefit people facing disadvantages such as low income, recalled her own personal experience with Justice Ginsburg. “I had the privilege of meeting Justice Ginsburg at the United States Supreme Court in 1998,” she said. “Our court was awarded special recognition from the Supreme Court for the work we had done on access to justice. The Supreme Court hosted a dinner in the rotunda for us and several other courts. What an honor to have even a few moments with such a brilliant person whose values governed her work and her life.”
The Sisters also reflected on how we can carry forward the legacy of Justice Ginsburg. One way, Sister Carolyn said, is to follow Justice Ginsburg’s incremental approach to change. “One piece of that is the ability to accept less than you want, to compromise, to be thankful for small steps, and to recognize that those steps might be difficult for other people, and to be willing to say, ‘OK, this is what we can do now,’” she said.
Sister Carolyn also noted that Justice Ginsburg’s ability to work with and respect people she disagreed with is sorely needed in our culture today. “Not making enemies of people who disagree with us is essential to the Gospel, but I think it’s also essential to the country,” she said. “What can I learn from these people who disagree with me? In order to speak to people where they are, you have to have that listening and that understanding of what they believe and where that comes from – what issue are they promoting, and where can we find common ground?”
Sister Attracta said that another way to carry on Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is to “continue to look for the people whose rights have been taken away from them – who never had a chance because people have decided they have no rights.”
As an immigration attorney, Sister Attracta safeguards the rights of immigrants and of those seeking refuge or asylum. She first became aware of the plight of the people of Central America in the 1980s when she visited Guatemala with Witness for Peace. There, she said, she saw the government of Guatemala – supported by the U.S. government – “destroying the indigenous people and killing anyone who got in their way.”
During Sister Attracta’s term on the General Council from 1986 to 1992, the Adrian Dominican Sisters were asked to provide temporary sanctuary for people from Central American nations awaiting their documents from home so that they could find asylum in Canada, Sister Attracta said. “We agreed to give one wing of Weber Center to house them,” she said. That experience drew her to become an immigration attorney. “I realized that if I knew law, I could be so much more help to the people,” she said.
Sister Patricia said people today can live out Justice Ginsberg’s legacy “by remaining engaged in the justice issues of our time … continuing to honor and deepen our commitment to justice and living our Gospel values.”
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney, shakes hands with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a 2005 reception for Catholic University Law School graduates who were sworn in at the Supreme Court.
June 27, 2016, Houston, Texas – Sister Maureen O’Connell, OP, believes the “holistic approach” of meeting the individual needs of each resident of Angela House leads to the program’s success in helping formerly incarcerated women to transition back into society. Since Sister Maureen founded the organization in 2002, Angela House has brought 322 women back into the community. Angela House is held up as an example of a life-changing organization that receives funding from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Diocesan Services Fund. Read the Texas Catholic Herald article by Kerry McGuire.