People mourning the Friday evening passing of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may want to watch the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex, a historical drama about Ginsburg’s co-litigation of a historic 1972 gender rights case.
In the film, actress Felicity Jones plays a young Ginsburg in her first year as a Harvard University law student in the late 1950s. Around then, Ginsburg had given birth to her first child, Jane, and her husband, Martin (played by Armie Hammer), had undergone surgical treatment for testicular cancer. His recovery at home left Ginsburg to attend his graduate classes and take notes so he could continue his studies while recuperating.
Unable to find work in the male-dominated legal profession after graduating with a law degree, Ginsburg begins teaching a class on sex discrimination at Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.
Knowing her interest in gender-based discrimination, Martin draws her attention to the case of Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, a 1970 case involving a Denver man denied a tax deduction on the basis of his gender.
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Moritz had hired a nurse to help take care of his elderly mother so he could work full-time, but the IRS denied him a tax deduction for his mother’s care because, at the time, tax law only awarded this deduction to women or to men whose wives were incapacitated.
Against a cultural backdrop of the burgeoning feminist rights movement, Ginsburg sees the case’s potential to challenge the 170-plus federal laws that discriminated on the basis of sex. She believed the male-dominated court system might be more sympathetic to a male plaintiff and, if Moritz wins, the legal victory could help litigate discrimination cases involving women.
But after Ginsburg takes on the case, co-litigating with her husband who specializes in tax law, she finds herself facing up against Department of Justice Attorney James H. Bozarth (played by Jack Reynor), a conservative attorney who argues that destabilizing the nation’s gender-based laws will shred the very fabric of American values.
The film is compassionate in its portrayal of Ginsburg as a determined young lawyer still finding her voice, and its story is rooted in historical realism based on her life and the legal standing of women at the time.
You can rent the film for view on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and Vudu, as well as on Showtime if you’re a subscriber.