By Terrance Turner
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died. She was 87.
The cause was complications from pancreatic cancer, the Court announced. Ginsburg valiantly fought colon cancer in 1999, early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009, lung cancer in 2018, and another bout of pancreatic cancer in 2019. Just last May, she was hospitalized for a gallbladder condition but continued to hear oral arguments from her hospital bed.
Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, D.C., surrounded by family, according to CNN. Her departure leaves open a vacancy on the Supreme Court; Judge Amy Coney Barrett. But more importantly, her death represents a loss for the nation — the loss of a groundbreaking cultural icon who inspired two high-profile films and in recent years was dubbed “The Notorious RBG”. Her remarkable life was capped by a 27-year tenure on the Supreme Court — the longest ever by a woman.
She was born Joan Ruth Bader in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. She grew up in Flatbush, NY, according to the New York Times. Her parents were immigrants and haberdashers who were often short on money. Tragedy struck early: her only sister died of meningitis when Joan Ruth was just 14 months old. She was raised as an only child and later said she grew up “with the smell of death.”
In her memoir In My Own Words, it was revealed that when Joan Ruth went to elementary school, there were several other girls named Joan in her class. Her mother suggested that her daughter be called Ruth to avoid confusion. So she was.
Ruth’s mother Celia never went to college, but was determined to make sure that her daughter would. She stored away money her husband gave her so that young Ruth could attend college. The fund eventually reached $8,000, per the Washington Post. Ruth ended up going to college on a scholarship. But her mother didn’t live to see that. Celia Bader died of cancer in 1950, the day before Ruth graduated from high school. She was unable to attend the ceremony.
Nevertheless, she persisted.
Ruth Bader went to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. While still a freshman in 1950, she met a sophomore named Martin Ginsburg. They met on a blind date and hit it off immediately; Mr. Ginsburg “was the only boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain,” she said. They began dating more seriously. By her junior year, the two were engaged.
They married in 1954, after she graduated at the top of her class. The marriage would last 56 years. “I have had more than a little luck in life, but nothing equals in magnitude than my marriage to Martin D. Ginsburg,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I do not have words to describe my super-smart, exuberant, ever-loving spouse.”
The couple moved to Lawton, Oklahoma shortly after the marriage (he got drafted to the Army). During Mr. Ginsburg’s two-year stint, Mrs. Ginsburg applied for a civil service job. According to the Washington Post, she came close to landing a job in the Social Security office. But she was demoted when she revealed she was pregnant. (Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave birth to her daughter Jane in 1955). Instead, she took a lower-paying job as a typist.
After Martin Ginsburg was discharged from the Army in 1956, he and his wife moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, per the Post. Mrs. Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard. She was one of only nine women (out of 500 students) in the Harvard Law School. And she became the first woman in the Harvard Law Review. (In those days, the dean expected each of the female students to argue why they belonged at Harvard in the place of a man. Mrs. Ginsburg said that the school would better help her understand her husband’s job.) She later transferred to Columbia University Law School after her husband found a job in Manhattan. He went on to become a tax lawyer.
Mrs. Ginsburg graduated in 1959, tied for first in her class — without one job offer from a New York law firm. “I struck out on three grounds — I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother,” the Washington Post quotes her as saying. She took a job as clerk for a federal judge in Manhattan. But soon she had another obstacle to contend with: Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed with aggressive testicular cancer. The prognosis was poor; he was debilitated by radiation treatments. Other students (his classmates) took notes on his behalf, and Mrs. Ginsburg typed them up so that her husband could study. Mr. Ginsburg eventually recovered and graduated on time. Later, he would become her caretaker as Mrs. Ginsburg battled cancer several times.
From 1963 to 1970, she worked on a project regarding Swedish civil law. The project required her to spend time in Sweden and learn Swedish. But it also forced her to confront changing social mores. Feminism was in the air. Child care was available in Sweden, and women balanced both career and family. Mrs. Ginsburg noticed that — and an article by editor Eva Moberg: “We ought to stop harping on the concept of women’s two roles,” she wrote. “Both men and women have one principal role, that of being people.”
In 1971, Ginsburg began volunteering with the American Civil Liberties Union on sex discrimination cases. A pivotal case was Reed v. Reed (1971), which dealt with estate law. The case concerned a married couple — Richard Reed and Sally Reed — who were separated. Their son had committed suicide with his father’s rifle, and both parties were fighting for control of his estate. Mr. Reed was automatically named executor. The decision was based on an Idaho statute that preferred males over females in estate ownership. Per Thought Catalog, the state code literally said “males must be preferred to females” (Section 15-314).
Mrs. Ginsburg and lawyers successfully argued that the statute was discriminatory; the Court agreed. In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that the Idaho law violated the Equal Protections Clause of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. It was the first U.S. Supreme Court case to declare sex/gender discrimination a violation of the 14th Amendment. Ginsburg’s 88-page brief for the case was an inventory of all the ways that the law reinforced the oppression of women. It became known as the “grandmother brief,” according to the New York Times, and feminist lawyers drew on it for years.
In 1972, Ginsburg left Rutgers for Columbia Law School, becoming the first woman to have a tenured position there. That same year, the ACLU formed its Women’s Rights Project and hired Ginsburg as its first director. She argued six cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1979; she won five of them, according to ABC News.
One of those victories was a landmark case called Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975). Stephen Wiesenfeld became a widower after his wife died in childbirth. He became the sole provider for their newborn son Jason. To help care for his baby son, Wiesenfeld was seeking Social Security survivor’s benefits. He was denied because federal law allowed benefits for widows, but not widowers (per Reuters). Ginsburg successfully argued on his behalf, asserting that the Social Security Act’s provision was discriminatory. The Court agreed, finding that the provision violated the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
The Washington Post notes that Wiesenfeld eventually sold his bicycle shop so that he could care for Jason and collect the benefits. But he and Ginsburg stayed in touch. In fact, when Stephen Wiesenfeld remarried in 2014 — at the age of 71 — Ruth Bader Ginsburg performed the ceremony! (She also officiated at the Florida wedding of his son Jason.)
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she spent 13 years. She wrote hundreds of opinions there. While serving in her post, she became friends with the conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who was also on the Court. The unlikely friendship would last for decades; despite their sharply divergent views, the two often met for dinner (cooked by Mr. Ginsburg, who playfully described his wife as a terrible cook). Scalia and Ginsburg even appeared as extras in a Washington National Opera production in 1994. By then, her life had changed dramatically.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court of the United States. The appointment was somewhat contentious. activists took issue with a 1984 speech in which she criticized the landmark ruling of Roe v. Wade (1973). Ginsburg felt that the ruling was too sweeping, too broad; she felt the Court should’ve simply overturned the Texas abortion law that was at issue, per the Post. The Times cited a 1993 speech just months before her nomination in which Ginsburg said that the ruling “halted a political process that was moving in a reform direction [and] prolonged divisiveness and deferred stable settlement of the issue.” The Times countered that the “reform” process had already ground to a halt — thanks to lobbying by the Catholic Church — and that divisiveness and backlash around the ruling had been stirred up by Republican strategists. Nonetheless, Mrs. Ginsburg made clear to the Senate Judiciary Committee that her support for abortion rights was indubitable.
Still, some women’s groups and abortion activists were bothered by the comments and worked quietly to oppose her nomination. But Ginsburg had a powerful ally. The Post reports that Martin Ginsburg launched a campaign for his wife’s appointment; it included “a torrent of letters and telephone calls to the White House that prompted Clinton to give her a second look.” Mrs. Ginsburg was also popular with the public, and Clinton eventually decided to offer her the job.
Bill Clinton had several reasons for his decision. “She was brilliant and had a good head on her shoulders. She was rigorous but warm-hearted. I thought she had the ability to find common ground in a country increasingly polarized,” ABC News quotes Clinton as saying of Ginsburg. “In short, I liked her and believed in her.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 96-3 on Aug. 3, 1993. Upon taking the job, she delivered a speech at the Rose Garden and paid tribute to her late mother. The Times said President Clinton was moved to tears by the tribute. “It is to my mother, Celia Amster Bader, the bravest and strongest woman I have ever known,” Ginsburg said. “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
Over the course of her 27-year career, Ginsburg heard a slew of notable cases. One of the most important cases, she said, was United States v. Virginia (1996). The Virginia Military Institute had a males-only admissions policy. It claimed that its physically challenging curriculum was unsuitable for women. Ginsburg disagreed: “Neither the goal of producing citizen soldiers nor VMI’s implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women,” she wrote. “Women seeking and fit for a V.M.I.-quality education cannot be offered anything less under the state’s obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection,” she wrote, quoted by the Times. The Court agreed; Ginsburg was joined by five other justices in her majority opinion. Together, they found that the males-only admissions process violated the 14th Amendment.
Another pivotal ruling came in Olmstead v. L.C. (1999). Ginsburg delivered the majority opinion, which affirmed the rights of those with disabilities to receive state-funded support and services in their communities. The Court ruled that, per the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), states were required to place people with mental disabilities in community settings instead of designated institutions. According to Justia.com, that decision rested on two principles: 1) Unjustified placement or retention of persons in institutions severely limits their exposure to the outside community; 2) To avoid unjustified isolation of people with disabilities, states can resist modifications that would fundamentally change their programs and services.
An even more impactful ruling came via Bush v. Gore (2000). The close election between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to Florida, where the vote was initially too close to call. The margin of victory for Bush was so small that it triggered a recount. After the recount, the victory margin shrunk from 1784 to a mere 327. Democrats requested recounts in four counties; Bush sued in court to stop the recounts. Gore sued after Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The case made it all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled 5-4 that the recounts must stop, thus making Bush the president-elect.
“I dissent,” Ginsburg wrote. “I cannot agree that the recount adopted by the Florida court, flawed as it may be, would yield a result any less fair or precise [than a certification].” Nevertheless, the Court’s ruling allowed the previous vote count to stand; it resulted in Bush being named the winner. Bush remembered Ginsburg as “a smart and humorous trailblazer”, adding: “She dedicated many of her 87 remarkable years to the pursuit of justice and equality, and she inspired more than one generation of women and girls.”
Ginsburg was even more renowned for her dissents than her concurrences; both loomed large in major Supreme Court decisions. In 2007, the Court heard the case of Lilly Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama. Ledbetter discovered that there was a pay disparity between herself and her male co-workers. She filed a claim arguing discrimination based on gender; the Court ruled against Ledbetter, claiming she had waited too late to file a complaint. Ginsburg disagreed.
“The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg wrote in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co (2007). She urged Congress to address the issue, and it did. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act requires employers to keep the records needed to prove fair pay. The statute of limitations for pay discrimination claims is 180 days; the Ledbetter law applies that 180-day period to each new paycheck “tainted” by discrimination. Thus, “An employee hired 10 years ago may now challenge her starting pay on the ground that each current paycheck is tainted by that 10-year old discriminatory decision.” The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill ever signed into law by former President Barack Obama. Mr. Obama signed the bill into law on January 29, 2009.
In 2013, Ginsburg again dissented sharply with her fellow justices. This time, the issue was the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4 of the Act describes a “coverage formula” to identify areas where racial discrimination in voting persist, and thus which areas pertain to Section 5. Section 5 prevents such areas from making changes to their voting procedures without federal approval. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Court gutted the VRA by ruling Section 4 was unconstitutional. Without Section 4, Section 5 is essentially unenforceable. Ginsburg sharply dissented. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote.
In 2015, Ginsburg participated in another landmark case. Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalized same-sex marriage, ruling that the right to marry is covered under the 14th Amendment and Due Process Clause of the Constitution. Ginsburg joined the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” he wrote. “In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it […] They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
Significantly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex marriage. And it was on marriage that she had some of her most poignant thoughts. In 2019, she relayed marital advice to Jennifer Lopez, who accepted a proposal from baseball legend Alex Rodriguez in March. Asked what she had told Lopez, Ginsburg relayed advice that her mother-in-law had given her on her wedding day in 1956:
The advice must have worked: Ginsburg enjoyed a long, happy marriage until 2010, when her husband Martin died from cancer. Before he died at 78, Mr. Ginsburg wrote a note for his wife on a yellow legal pad. She found it near his hospital bed. Mr. Ginsburg wrote: “My dearest Ruth: You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside [my] parents and kids, and their kids. And I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met, at Cornell.”
The Ginsburgs are survived by their two children and four grandchildren.