Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Supreme Court Justice’s Legacy

Americans across all political spectrums were struck with grief at the news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had

Ruth Bader Ginsberg Supreme Court Justice

Americans across all political spectrums were struck with grief at the news that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died last Friday, at the age of 87. No matter how you felt about the policies she supported or the work she did on the SCOTUS, Ginsburg was a legend who demanded respect. As the country grieves our tremendous loss in the wake of her passing, CELEB is celebrating the life she lived and the legacy she left. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Early Life

Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933. The Brooklyn native was the second daughter of Nathan and Celia Bader.CBS reports on how Celia impacted a young Ginsburg; “As Ginsburg told Jane Pauley on ‘Sunday Morning in 2016, ‘She said two things: Be a lady and be independent. ‘Be a lady’ meant don’t give way to emotions that sap your energy, like anger. Take a deep breath and speak calmly.’

Ruth was inspired both by her mother’s words and her life story. Ruth’s daughter, Jane Ginsburg, said, ‘Her mother was the brains in the family. But her parents wanted her to go out and work, even before finishing high school, because there was a boy in the family, and money had to be made so that he could go to college.’

Correspondent Erin Moriarty asked, ‘How do you think that affected your mom?’

‘Seeing a less-qualified male preferred to a deserving woman was something that marked her from a very early age,’ Jane replied.”

When Ginsburg was in high school, Celia fought a battle with cancer. She died the day before Ginsburg graduated from high school, leaving behind a legacy of intelligence, independence, and perseverance for her daughter to follow. 

Ginsburg’s College Experience and Marriage

After graduating from high school, Ginsburg attended Cornell University. The future SCOTUS legend met Martin Ginsburg while in college, and fell in love. graduated in 1954 with a Bachelor’s degree. Daughter Jane recalled that Martin was the only man in college who cared that Ruth had a brain.  Also in 1954, Martin and Ruth married, and soon after they welcomed first daughter Jane in 1955. Shortly before Jane was born, Martin was drafted into the military. He served two years, and after he was discharged he returned to Harvard where Ruth enrolled in law school in 1956. 

Biography.com shares, “At Harvard, Ginsburg learned to balance life as a mother and her new role as a law student. She also encountered a very male-dominated, hostile environment, with only eight other females in her class of more than 500. The women were chided by the law school’s dean for taking the places of qualified males. But Ginsburg pressed on and excelled academically, eventually becoming the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review.”

Also in 1956, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Ever a powerhouse, Ruth not only attended her classes, cared for her ill husband and new baby, but she also attended Martin’s classes and took notes for him. After Martin recovered, he graduated from Harvard law school and accepted a position at a law firm in New York City. Ruth transferred to Columbia University to continue her law school studies. The young wife and mother graduated first in her class in 1959. 

Ginsburg’s Early Career 

Despite her overwhelming academic success and demonstrated ability to focus on school and career despite the challenges of motherhood, Ginsburg encountered roadblock after roadblock due to her gender. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg Funeral

History.com shares about this stage in her career, “Despite her outstanding academic record, however, Ginsburg continued to encounter gender discrimination while seeking employment after graduation. After clerking for U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, she taught at Rutgers University Law School (1963-72) and at Columbia (1972-80), where she became the school’s first female tenured professor.

During the 1970s, she also served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), for which she argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S. Supreme Court.

However, she also believed that the law was gender-blind and all groups were entitled to equal rights. One of the five cases she won before the Supreme Court involved a portion of the Social Security Act that favored women over men because it granted certain benefits to widows but not widowers.”

CBS says of Ginsburg’s struggles against gender discrimination in her early career, “Ginsburg said, ‘I had three strikes against me: one, I was Jewish; two, I was a woman; but the killer was, I was a mother of a four-year-old child.’

‘She simply was virtually unemployable,’ said Stacy Hawkins, who teaches constitutional law at Rutgers Law School. ‘Law firms were barely willing to give any woman an opportunity, and they simply were unwilling to give one to a working woman with a child.’

Moriarty said, ‘A lot of people would be discouraged by that and would just not push ahead.’

Hawkins said, ‘I think that that’s what has propelled her. She has this quiet, steady, yet deeply deliberate way about her, that she pursues everything, and that she knows exactly how she’s going to achieve her goals.’

Ginsburg recalled to Sunday Morning, ‘It was difficult, into the middle ’70s, to persuade judges who at that time were overwhelmingly male and white, to persuade them that there was such a thing as discrimination against women. Because their idea was, women are on a pedestal, women are protected by the law. And many women were finding out that these so-called protections were protecting men’s jobs from women’s competition.’”

Ginsburg Becomes a Supreme Court Justice

In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. And in 1993, President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg was approved with bipartisan support in a vote of 93-3. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

During her time on the SCOTUS, Ginsburg became known for her fierce defense of the rights of the vulnerable, and the quiet and determined way she stood up to anyone who tried to stand against her. At 5’1″, the small-statured Supreme Court Justice became a towering beacon of hope and tenacity as women fought the pay gap, hoped to preserve abortion rights, and depended on her voice to be a stalwart defender in the nation’s highest court. 

Britannica tells us of her time on the SCOTUS, “On the Court, Ginsburg became known for her active participation in oral arguments and her habit of wearing jabots, or collars, with her judicial robes, some of which expressed a symbolic meaning. She identified, for example, both a majority-opinion collar and a dissent collar. Early in her tenure on the Court, Ginsburg wrote the majority’s opinion in United States v. Virginia (1996), which held that the men-only admission policy of a state-run university, the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), violated the equal protection clause. Rejecting VMI’s contention that its program of military-focused education was unsuitable for women, Ginsburg noted that the program was in fact unsuitable for the vast majority of Virginia college students regardless of gender. ‘[G]eneralizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description,’ she wrote.

Although Ginsburg tended to vote with other liberal justices on the Court, she got along well with most of the conservative justices who had been appointed before her. She enjoyed a special connection with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a moderate conservative and the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and she and conservative Justice Antonin Scalia famously bonded over their shared love of opera (indeed, the American composer-lyricist Derrick Wang wrote a successful comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg, celebrating their relationship). She praised the work of the first chief justice with whom she served, William Rehnquist, another conservative… 

…Ginsburg attracted attention for several strongly worded dissenting opinions and publicly read some of her dissents from the bench to emphasize the importance of the case. Two such decisions in 2007 concerned women’s rights. The first, Gonzales v. Carhart, upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act on a 5–4 vote. Ginsburg decried the judgment as ‘alarming,’ arguing that it ‘cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right [the right of women to choose to have an abortion] declared again and again by this Court.’ Similarly, in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, another 5–4 decision, Ginsburg criticized the majority’s holding that a woman could not bring a federal civil suit against her employer for having paid her less than it had paid men (the plaintiff did not become aware of her right to file suit until after the filing period had passed). Ginsburg argued that the majority’s reasoning was inconsistent with the will of the U.S. Congress—a view that was somewhat vindicated when Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill that Democratic U.S. Pres. Barack Obama signed into law.

…in 2010, Ginsburg became the most senior justice within the liberal bloc. She wrote dissents articulating liberal perspectives in several more prominent and politically charged cases. Her partial dissent in the Affordable Care Act cases (2012), which posed a constitutional challenge to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as ‘Obamacare’), criticized her five conservative colleagues for concluding—in her view contrary to decades of judicial precedent—that the commerce clause did not empower Congress to require most Americans to obtain health insurance or pay a fine. In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Court’s conservative majority struck down as unconstitutional Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, which had required certain states and local jurisdictions to obtain prior approval (“preclearance”) from the federal Justice Department of any proposed changes to voting laws or procedures. Ginsburg, in dissent, criticized the ‘hubris’ of the majority’s ‘demolition of the VRA’ and declared that ‘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.’

Ruth Bader Ginsberg Memorial

…Throughout her career Ginsburg concluded her dissents with the phrase ‘I dissent,’ rather than the conventional and more common ‘I respectfully dissent,’ which she considered an unnecessary (and slightly disingenuous) nicety.

In part because of her increasing outspokenness, Ginsburg became, during the Obama administration (2009–17), a progressive and feminist folk hero…

…Nevertheless, some liberals, citing Ginsburg’s advanced age and concerns about her health (she was twice a cancer survivor) and apparent frailty, argued that she should retire in order to allow Obama to nominate a liberal replacement. Others, however, pointed to her vigorous exercise routine and the fact that she had never missed an oral argument to urge that she should remain on the Court for as long as possible. For her own part, Ginsburg expressed her intention to continue for as long as she was able to perform her job ‘full steam.’ On the day after Martin Ginsburg died in 2010, she went to work at the Court as usual because, she said, it was what he would have wanted.”

More Than her Career, RBG Became an Icon

Ginsburg became something of a pop icon as she was crowned with the title “Notorious RBG” as a nod to rapper Notorious B.I.G. DailyBeast reports the origin of the nickname, “‘It began, she said, with a ‘young woman at NYU Law School’ who was supremely pissed off at the Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., which, Ginsburg said bluntly, ‘took the heart out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965… And then she realized that anger is not a productive emotion. It doesn’t get you anywhere. So she was going to do something positive. She started this Tumblr with my dissent in the Shelby County case, and it took off from there,’ she said and paused. ‘The ‘Notorious RBG’ is after the Notorious BIG—well-known rapper. And when they told me that’s what they were calling the Tumblr, I said, ‘Well, of course. We have one big thing in common.’ What do you have in common with the Notorious BIG? ‘We were both born and bred in Brooklyn.’”

Ginsburg fought for more than women’s rights, also advocating for worker’s rights, the separation of church and state, and the rights of LGBTQ community members. Biography writes, “On June 26, the Supreme Court handed down its second historic decision in as many days, with a 5–4 majority ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Ginsburg is considered to have been instrumental in the decision, having shown public support for the idea in past years by officiating same-sex marriages and by challenging arguments against it during the early proceedings of the case. She was joined in the majority by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, with Roberts reading the dissenting opinion this time.”

RBG’s Legacy

Ruth Bader Ginsberg

In her 27 years on the SCOTUS, Ginsburg fought tirelessly for the rights of the vulnerable. A quiet voice of determination, moderation, and justice, her presence will be sorely missed. Ginsburg was outspoken against President Donald J Trump as she expressed concern about his sincerity and tendency to flout the law. Ginsburg later apologized for speaking out against then-candidate Trump, but in her final days she spoke with concern about the idea that the president would be appointing her successor. Clara Spera, Ginsburg’s granddaughter and a lawyer, recorded her grandmother’s lash wish, telling the BBC,”‘She dictated the following sentence to me: ‘My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed. I read it back to her, she was very happy with that, and when I asked her, ‘Is that it? Is there anything else you’d like to say?’ She said, ‘The rest of my work is a matter of public record.’ So that was all she wanted to add.’”

As the days and weeks stretch away from the last moment Ginsburg shared alive with the citizens whose rights she stalwartly defended, the United States will have to grapple with it’s own future. Ginsburg’s legacy is one of justice, of equality and bravery. In her wake, she leaves a path of hope and determination for others to follow. Although it’s likely that her successor will be a polar opposite to everything Ginsburg fought for, she has energized generations of women and advocates of equal rights. With an example like the one Ginsburg left, we can’t help but move forward determined to preserve her hard work. 

ABC 7 shares a statement released by her alma mater Columbia University, “Today is the saddest of days for our community. We are heartbroken by the news that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’59, has died. It is difficult to find words adequate to capture the magnitude of this loss in the life of our institution, nor the scale of her legacy within the modern American legal consciousness. Since 1958, when she arrived at Columbia Law School for her 3L year, Justice Ginsburg made an indelible impact at every turn-first as a star student, then as a trailblazing and dauntless professor and advocate, and finally as a devoted alumna. In Columbia Law School’s long and venerable history, I am hard pressed to think of an individual who more singularly elevated our collective aspirations. Her foundational work to advance gender equality, her commitment to the public good, and more than 40 years of path marking jurisprudence-characterized in equal measure by its courage and by its precision-made her an icon to generations of lawyers and ordinary citizens alike. For many, myself included, she was a personal hero.”

Gone, but Never Forgotten

One of the thing about heroes is that they become more than the body they inhabit. They even become more than the deeds they accomplished. They live on in the inspiration they left with others. Heroes like Ginsburg plant tiny seeds in the hearts and minds of normal people, who carry that heroism with them in their day to day life. 

As the late great herself said, “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” Now we as Americans have to move forward one step at a time and carry her legacy with us.