Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday, September 18, 2020, at the age of 87. The Justice had long stood as a stalwart of women’s rights and social justice on the United States Supreme Court and inspired millions of people around the world through her hard work, perseverance, and courage in the face of adversity.
Justice Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. She enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956 and subsequently transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year after her husband, Martin Ginsburg, became sick with cancer. Justice Ginsburg’s story of resilience would later inspire millions, as she attended class for both herself and her husband, and cared for her husband while graduating first in her class.
Justice Ginsburg faced discrimination immediately out of law school, as she was unable to obtain a job with any of the prestigious New York City firms simply because she was a woman. Justice Ginsburg instead clerked for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri in the Southern District of New York and pursued scholarly research until 1963, when she began teaching at the Rutgers University Law School. She joined the faculty of Columbia Law School in 1972 and ultimately became the first tenured woman on the faculty.
Justice Ginsburg also served as General Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) Women’s Rights Project, where she first set the stage for the equal rights advocacy that would grow to define her career. Justice Ginsburg argued six cases to the High Court, including Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld in 1975, in which she strategically argued that the then-existing Social Security policy discriminated against men, in part as a means of showing that discrimination affects all people, not just women. According to a now-famous anecdote, Justice Ginsburg famously chose to use the word “gender” in her cases, rather than “sex,” after one of her secretaries noted that the latter might distract the male Justices from the issues. She also wrote an amicus brief and attended oral arguments for Craig v. Boren, in which the Supreme Court first applied the intermediate scrutiny that applies to sex discrimination cases under the Equal Protection Clause, setting the stage for Justice Ginsburg to strengthen the framework from the bench a few decades later.
Justice Ginsburg joined the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1980, where she served until joining the nation’s highest court in 1993. Justice Ginsburg became only the second woman and the first Jewish woman to serve on the Court.
Perhaps Justice Ginsburg’s most famous achievement was the Court’s landmark 1996 ruling in United States v. Virginia. There, Justice Ginsburg wrote for a 7–1 majority that the Virginia Military Institute violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by forbidding women from attending the school. She famously wrote that sex-based classifications were only permissible if the government could provide an “exceedingly persuasive” justification, and that such a rationale “must not rely on overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences of males and females.” In perhaps the opinion’s most vivid line, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “‘[i]nherent differences’ between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s liberty.”
Justice Ginsbug was also known for her biting dissents, which grew more common as the balance of the Court shifted in recent years. Justice Ginsburg famously wore an ornate black collar over her robe on days she read dissenting opinions from the bench. But she remained concerned about the increasing number of 5–4 opinions as the issues before the Court became more politically charged over the years and stressed the importance of a unified Court.
In her later years, Justice Ginsburg served as an inspiration to millions through her strenuous physical workouts and health crises. She famously worked from her hospital bed amid one fight with cancer, and constantly strove to remain an active and vital part of the Court’s work. Justice Ginsburg was also the subject of a well-known book, Notorious R.B.G. (2015), a documentary entitled RBG (2018), and the 2018 film On the Basis of Sex.
Over the weekend, Justice Ginsburg was mourned by professors and students around the St. John’s community. According to Professor John Q. Barrett, “Justice Ginsburg might be the most important woman in American history. But of course that’s a sexist categorization, and one of the things that she taught us all is that such categories have no defensible place among humanity’s equal people, particularly in our country committed to equality.” He said that “she lived one of the very greatest lives of public service and positive impact in United States history,” and described her as “a brilliant, careful lawyer” who “judged smartly and honestly,” who “wrote beautiful, clear opinions,” and “was for each person’s equality, legal protection, freedom, and better future.”
Professor Rosemary Salomone, writing of Justice Ginsburg’s United States v. Virginia opinion, said that the “case vindicated her entire legal career.” The opinion would ultimately serve as the inspiration for Professor Salomone’s book, Same, Different, Equal, in which she advocated for single-sex educational programs. “Little did Justice Ginsburg envision that a decision undoing a bastion of male privilege would consequently open educational opportunities for scores of disadvantaged girls both in the United States as well as in developing countries where single-sex schools are the only culturally permissible option,” Professor Salomone concluded.
Professor Marc O. DeGirolami said that “Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for many things, but what was especially admirable to me was her capacity to maintain deep and lasting friendships with those with whom she differed legally and politically, including the late Justice Antonin Scalia. In this, she was an example to us that human fellowship and connection can transcend political differences.”
Professor Catherine Duryea said that “Justice Ginsburg’s commitment to equality was apparent in everything she did, from fighting for equal pay as a young law professor to penning her fiery dissents on the Supreme Court. She is known as an advocate for women’s rights, but she improved the lives of both women and men by pushing back against strict gender norms in ways that valued both paid work and parenting, both mothering and fathering. Her legacy as a feminist hero and cultural icon will continue to inspire lawyers and activists for generations to come.”
Justice Ginsburg is survived by two children and four grandchildren. Justice Ginsburg’s daughter, Jane, is a professor of law at Columbia Law School. Her son James is a music producer.
Whether through groundbreaking advocacy and equal rights jurisprudence and fiery dissents or through perseverance and indelible strength in the face of adversity, Justice Ginsburg’s passing leaves a gaping hole in the heart of America and the law. As tributes around the country have shown, her legacy and spirit will live on for generations to come, and will serve as a constant reminder of what we can achieve with hard work, dedication, and the courage to try.