For the judicial icon otherwise known as R.B.G., Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s past few roller-coaster months have included being lionized by Hollywood, laid low by cancer surgery, and most recently issuing one of the Supreme Court term’s more important decisions, placing limits on civil forfeiture, within a day of returning to the bench. People who know almost nothing about the court and can’t name another justice know her name. In a celebrity-saturated age, she is one of the culture’s most unlikely rock stars.
Yet for all the accolades that have come her way, I’m willing to bet that among the most meaningful to her is one that doesn’t even mention her name. I’m referring to the decision last week by a federal district judge in Houston that declared the current male-only draft registration system to violate the constitutional requirement that the government treat men and women equally.
Justice Ginsburg’s influence shone through the spare and refreshingly direct 19 pages of Judge Gray H. Miller’s opinion. He held that the old arguments against registering (and theoretically drafting) women accepted by the Supreme Court when it last considered the question 38 years ago no longer apply now that women are welcomed by the military and eligible for all roles, including combat positions, for which they meet the sex-neutral qualifications.
Female soldiers’ ineligibility for combat roles was the basis for the court’s rejection of the equal-protection argument posed by the 1981 case, Rostker v. Goldberg. “This is not a case of Congress arbitrarily choosing to burden one of two similarly situated groups,” Justice William H. Rehnquist, not yet the chief justice, wrote for the 6-to-3 majority. “Men and women, because of the combat restrictions on women, are simply not similarly situated for purposes of a draft or registration for a draft.”