Updated: Sep 26
Last Friday, September 18, 2020, United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. According to an NPR article, “Inside the court, not only is the leader of the liberal wing gone, but with the court about to open a new term, the chief justice no longer holds the controlling vote in closely contested cases.” Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton as the second woman Supreme Court Justice, although her remarkable legal career spans decades before that. She must be remembered not only for her time served on the U.S. Supreme Court, but also her groundbreaking work towards the advancement of gender equality and her lifelong commitment to justice. May her memory and legacy live on forever.
Early Life and Career
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933. After graduating from Cornell University in 1954 as the highest ranking female student in her class, she then went to get her J.D. from Columbia Law School in 1959. After being denied an interview for a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, she finally got her first clerkship under Judge Edmund Palmieri in 1959. After her clerkship, she spent several weeks in Sweden for a summer fellowship, where she studied the Swedish legal system. This experience proved to be formative as she was exposed to the country’s progressive views on gender roles in raising families. After being rejected from teaching positions at both Harvard and Columbia’s law schools, she obtained a teaching job at Rutgers Law School in 1963, where she began her work fighting gender discrimination.
She would eventually become the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School, and she would be the founding director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, which she directed in the 1970s. According to the project’s current head Ria Tabacco Mar in an article for the Associated Press, the initiative marked “a real turning point for situating women’s rights not just as a gender issue, but as a civil rights issue that affected all of us.” In that decade alone, she won five of the six key cases she argued before the Supreme Court in a “litigation strategy to persuade the justices that official discrimination on the basis of sex was a harm of constitutional dimension,” according to her New York Times obituary. A more comprehensive list and description of some of her early legal victories can be found here.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Thirteen years later, in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, only the second woman appointed to the position.
Supreme Court Tenure
Known for her liberal decisions and her dissents, a Washington Post article states that “she was a reliable vote to enhance the rights of women, protect affirmative action and minority voting rights and defend a woman’s right to choose an abortion.” One of her most notable feats involved writing the decision to admit women to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1996, claiming that “the all-male admissions policy of a state-supported military college was unconstitutional.” According to the Washington Post article, she said: “‘I regard the VMI case as the culmination of the 1970s endeavor to open doors so that women could aspire and achieve without artificial constraints.’” The New York Times quotes her as saying: “‘Inherent differences between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration,’ she wrote, ‘but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.’ Any differential treatment, she emphasized, must not ‘create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women.’”
With regard to Ginsburg’s dissents, they were viewed as a chance for her to “persuade” and “provide guidance” to future courts. Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan, U.S attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan from 2015-2017, and Assistant U.S. attorney in Detroit for 12 years, serving as deputy chief of the National Security Unit said that “‘by filing those dissenting opinions, she can shape the law.’” The Washington Post notes some of her notable dissents in an article here; you can also read more on the legacy of these dissents under the Judicial Legacy section of the New York Times’ feature.
Ginsburg’s legal and judicial career has impacted people worldwide and will always be remembered. In her fight to end gender discrimination, she has often been described as the “Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement.” Nancy Gertner, a senior lecturer on law at Harvard Law School and former U.S. federal judge, said that Ginsburg educated us “‘how to effect social change, using the tools that the Constitution gave us…the things that we take for granted, she deftly and carefully explained and busted the myths,’” in an interview for WBUR’s On Point. Other women also remarked on the impact Ginsburg had on them in the same On Point piece. Devi Rao, one of Ginsburg’s law clerks in 2013, said the justice had taught her that “‘law isn’t just about the law — it’s about the people whose lives are impacted by those laws.’”
Without Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her work and influence, Good Counsel Services’ work would not be possible. In a 2015 conversation at the American Constitution Society, Ginsburg said: “There should be no place where there isn’t a welcome mat for women…That’s what it’s all about: Women and men, working together, should help make the society a better place than it is now.” Because we commit ourselves to help promote social change at Good Counsel Services, we are forever inspired by her actions. We hope her memory and legacy will spark even greater systemic social change to benefit all people.