On Friday night, we lost an American legacy: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately known as RBG. She served as the most senior member of the court’s liberal wing, consistently voting for more progressive rulings, including but not limited to, equal rights, same-sex marriage, health care, affirmative action, abortion, and voting rights. With six weeks to go before election day, her passing will inevitably lead to a political battle on the timing of a nomination for a future Supreme Court Justice. While the subject is guaranteed to dominate the airwaves and social media in the days to come, I want to focus this article on the life of RBG.
Joan “Ruth” Bader was born to working-class parents in Brooklyn, New York on March 15, 1933. Her parents’ strong focus on education likely resulted from the experience of her mother, who showed promise in high school, but did not attend college because her family could only afford to send her brother. Unfortunately, RBG lost her mother to cervical cancer just days before her high school graduation. Nevertheless, a resilient young woman, she attended Cornell University, where she graduated at the top of her class in 1954. During that time, she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, who was a fellow student at Cornell. When her husband was drafted into the military, she put her academic pursuits on hold to focus on family. They had their first child, Jane, while stationed in Oklahoma. Two years later, after Martin finished his service, RBG began studying at Harvard Law School.
During her first year in law school, her husband, also a student at Harvard Law, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. She cared for her husband while simultaneously remaining at the top of her class and helping him through school. I think every student, juggling academia and a family, can understand how difficult that must have been to accomplish. When Martin finished law school, he accepted a job at a law firm in New York City. Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School, where again, she graduated at the top of her class in 1959.
Despite being incredibly qualified, she struggled to find her first job because she was female and a mother. Through sheer determination and grit, she was able to secure a clerkship at the Southern District of New York before taking on academic roles at Columbia Law School and Rutgers School of Law. She continued to face sexism, however, being asked to take a lower salary, and fearing termination when pregnant with her second child, James.
These life events were monumental in leading RBG to her involvement on the issue of gender inequality. She released two law review articles on gender discrimination in 1971 and became involved with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1972, she became founding counsel of ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and also became the first tenured female faculty member at Columbia Law. In 1980, she was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Jimmy Carter. During this time, she was considered by most to be pragmatic, moderate, and cautious in her rulings and opinions.
In June 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, making her the second female, as well as the second Jewish member to join its ranks. During her 27 years on the Supreme Court, RBG’s voting became more progressive, while she maintained cordial personal relationships with her more conservative counterparts. She began attracting attention for her dissenting opinions that she eloquently articulated in an effort to emphasize the importance of the case being considered. Her growing reputation became quickly familiar to members of the Obama administration, and led to her nickname, the Notorious R.B.G. Fun fact: It was a second-year law student at NYU that gave her that now-common sobriquet.
Some of her more “notorious” rulings and dissents include:
- United States v. Virginia, 1996: Virginia Military Institute was the last remaining all-male undergraduate program in this country. The U.S. filed a lawsuit that this admissions policy violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. Her and the majority ruling reinforced the precedent that gender equality is a constitutional right.
- Olmstead v. L.C., 1999: This case enforced the integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act, after two women came forward with their experiences of involuntary confinement to a psychiatric unit of a Georgia hospital, although medically cleared. In her majority opinion, she affirmed that the rights afforded to individuals with disabilities could not be denied.
- Bush v. Gore, 2000: In the 2000 presidential election, this case was escalated from the Florida Supreme Court, which had mandated a manual recount of ballots. While RBG was in the minority and the Supreme Court ruled in agreement with Florida, the case is remembered for RBG’s written “I dissent,” which was a departure from the previous norm of using the term “respectfully.”
- Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 2007: The plaintiff filed a lawsuit against her employer for gender pay discrimination. In a 5-4 ruling, the majority deduced the statute of limitations at the start of every pay period, even if a female does not know she is being paid less than her male colleagues. RBG’s dissent to this ruling helped pave the way for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which advocated for employees in pay discrimination cases.
- Shelby County v. Holden, 2013: Alabama’s Shelby County challenged a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required federal preapproval for some southern states to change voting regulation. In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court decided the practice was outdated. RBG is known for her dissent to the ruling by stating, “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” In the years since this section was reversed, these states have passed new laws making it more difficult to vote.
- Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015: This case granted same-sex marriage as a constitutional right in all 50 states. RBG became the public advocate and face of the hearing through her oral arguments, calling out archaic ideals of marriage. In the end, the court ruled 5-4 in favor of establishing protections of same-sex marriage.
- Whole Woman Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016: The Supreme Court ruling denied the restrictions that Texas’s Omnibus Abortion Bill placed on abortion providers. She was quoted to have said, “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners…at great risk to their health and safety.”
RGB was first diagnosed with cancer in 1999, originally in her colon. In 2009, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which metastasized despite surgical resection and treatment. After a gallant battle, she passed away on Friday night in her home in Washington D.C., surrounded by her family. The world has lost a heroine, an equality advocate, and a political icon. May you rest in power, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Photo credit: IG: @motherjonesmag