Julie Rikelman, Senior Director of Litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights, has been named by Crain’s New York as one of its Notable Women in Law for 2021. The list, published December 21, 2020, honors the professional achievements of women practicing law in New York City.
Crain’s explains, “These impressive attorneys were chosen not only for their skills and accomplishments, but also for their efforts to shore up the edifice of justice. In the public and private sectors, domestically and abroad, and across industries and sectors, these lawyers—litigators, dealmakers, prosecutors, defenders and investigators—work to uphold the law as Thomas Hobbes described it: ‘the public conscience.’”
In her position at the Center, Rikelman leads a litigation team that fights to protect and expand access to reproductive health and rights.
“I feel lucky to be able to devote my career to an issue that I care about so deeply—the right to reproductive autonomy—and to work alongside such dedicated colleagues and partners,” Rikelman said. “As a parent, I know how important it is for people to be able to make their own decisions around pregnancy and forming a family, whether that decision is to become pregnant, to end a pregnancy or to ensure a safe and healthy pregnancy. As a working mother and an attorney, I also know that these decisions are critical to economic and racial justice.”
In March, Rikelman argued the Center’s June Medical Services v. Russo case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the first major abortion-rights case at the Court since 2016. The Court issued its decision this summer, siding with Rikelman and ruling unconstitutional a Louisiana law designed to restrict access to abortion care.
Rikelman credits her Supreme Court victory to months of hard work with her case team and her co-lead counsel, T.J. Tu. Because of their extensive preparation, “I was not asked a single question at the oral argument that I was not prepared to answer,” she said. In Court, she was bolstered by the presence of her team members—many who slept outside on the Court steps overnight to get seats to the argument.
Other significant cases Rikelman and her team litigated during 2020 included the Center’s emergency responses to states’ attempts to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic to ban abortion care. The lawsuits filed by the Center succeeded in keeping abortion care accessible in multiple states around the country.
Restrictions on access to reproductive health care disproportionately impact people of color, people struggling to make ends meet, and those living in rural communities. The disparate impact on these communities demonstrates why reproductive autonomy is critical to racial and economic justice, whether the issue is access to assisted reproduction, maternal health care, or abortion care that is free from discrimination and coercion.
Immigrant Success Story
Rikelman knew since she was a teenager that she wanted a career in social justice. When she was six, she immigrated to the United States from Ukraine with her family to escape anti-Semitism. She saw first-hand and learned about the discrimination her parents faced, because of their religion, because they were immigrants, and because English was not their native language. She grew up in the Boston area and earned her bachelor’s and law degrees from Harvard. After two clerkships, including for the first woman to be appointed to Alaska's highest court and that court's first female chief justice, she moved on to a fellowship at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She then worked as a vice president of litigation at NBC for five years before returning to the Center in 2011 as a senior staff member.
At the Center, she has litigated to preserve abortion access in Mississippi, challenged multiple abortion bans throughout the country, fought against invasive ultrasound laws and restrictions on medication abortion, and defended teenagers’ rights to make their own reproductive health choices. Rikelman was also part of the team that successfully argued the Center’s 2001 Supreme Court case, Ferguson v. City of Charleston, challenging a local hospital policy targeting low-income pregnant women of color by reporting their confidential medical information to the police.
Julie Rikelman’s successes in 2020 epitomize the Center’s ongoing dedication to advancing reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world. The efforts of dedicated attorneys at the Center like Rikelman will continue to be crucial for years to come.
Read more about June Medical Services v. Russo, the Supreme Court case litigated by Julie Rikelman, here.
Read about the Center’s COVID-19 lawsuits and resources here.