Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legal pioneer for gender equality who became the second woman ever to serve on the nation’s highest court and ultimately a pop culture icon, died Friday, September 18, 2020. She was 87.
Ginsburg’s death follows her announcement in July that she had suffered a recurrence of cancer and that lesions had been found on her liver. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2009 and 2019, as well as lung cancer in 2018 and colon cancer in 1999.
The vacancy gives President Donald Trump an opportunity to create a solidly conservative high court, perhaps for decades to come.
Ginsburg, the oldest justice on the court, had been under pressure from some liberal allies to step down while Barack Obama was in the White House and could nominate her replacement. She elected to stay, believing Democrats – and, ultimately, Hillary Clinton – would win the 2016 election.
In an interview in 2013, Ginsburg insisted she had not lost a step and was planning her future one year at a time.
“As long as I can do the job full-steam, I would like to stay here,” she said then. “I have to take it year by year at my age, and who knows what could happen next year? Right now, I know I’m OK.”
Throughout her career, Ginsburg’s diminutive presence belied her titanic influence on the law, first as the nation’s preeminent litigator for women’s rights, and more recently as the leader of the high court’s liberal bloc, where she served as a bulwark against an increasingly conservative majority.
“As a litigator and then as a judge, she changed the face of American anti-discrimination law,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan said in 2014. “More than any other person, she can take credit for making the law of this country work for women.”
Ginsburg’s selection by President Bill Clinton in 1993 ended a quarter-century Supreme Court drought for Democrats, following 10 successive nominations by Republican presidents. Still, the court had remained ideologically balanced because half of the GOP nominees morphed into moderate or even liberal justices.
Ginsburg’s most famous opinion as a justice came just three years after she joined the court, when she authored the 7-1 ruling that opened the doors of the Virginia Military Institute to women.
“There is no reason to believe that the admission of women capable of all the activities required of VMI cadets would destroy the institute rather than enhance its capacity to serve the ‘more perfect union,’” she wrote.
While remaining a reliable stalwart for equal rights in her later years, Ginsburg had trouble commanding majorities on the court. As the years passed, she became more vocal in her dissents – delivering five of them from the bench in the 2012 term alone, a record that still stands. The closet in her chambers held a selection of her trademark lace jabots, some reserved solely for those dissents.
When the court struck down the crucial section of the Voting Rights Act by a 5-4 vote in June 2013 – enabling states with a history of discrimination to escape preemptory Justice Department oversight – she likened it to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
But two years later, she was on the winning side again and again during an anomalous term in which the court struck down state laws banning same-sex marriage and saved Obama’s Affordable Care Act for the second time.
Ginsburg long believed in putting words into action. Finding herself on the losing side of Lily Ledbetter’s wage discrimination lawsuit in 2007, she urged Congress to right the court’s wrong, leading to the first law Obama signed in 2009 – the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
And following the high court’s initial rulings on same-sex marriage in 2013, she became the first justice in history to preside at a same-sex wedding ceremony, something she later repeated. Kagan and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor since have followed Ginsburg’s example.
In recent years, she became a folk hero to the left – the subject of the award-winning documentary “RBG,” an opera and a feature-length film, “On the Basis of Sex.” Her praises were sung on the “Ruth Bader GinsBlog” and her initials emblazoned on “Notorious R.B.G.” T-shirts. She took great pride in a bobblehead celebrating the highlights of her career, and she helped to assemble a book of her opinions, dissents and writings entitled “My Own Words.”
“It’s amazing – to think of me, an icon!” she often observed.
But she also caused considerable angst among her liberal allies by maintaining an active schedule despite her ailments, giving speeches and accepting awards. In recent years, those travels were interspersed by trips to the hospital for cancer treatments and other illnesses, ranging from chills and fever to a benign gallbladder condition.
A ‘sleeping’ giant
In recent years, Ginsburg first sought to emulate the longevity of the legendary Associate Justice Louis Brandeis, who retired at 82 after 23 years on the court. Then she drew comparisons to Justice John Paul Stevens, who stepped down at 90 after serving 35 years and later died in 2019 at 99.
During oral arguments, her head often would sink low, so that it seemed she was inattentive – or even asleep. Then she would pounce with a question that showed she likely had been alert all along.
She maintained close friendships with colleagues on the other side of the court’s ideological divide, from former Chief Justice William Rehnquist to constitutional originalist Antonin Scalia, the only dissenter in the VMI case, with whom she shared foreign trips and family dinners for decades.
“We agree on a whole lot of stuff,” Scalia said during an appearance with Ginsburg at the National Press Club before his death in 2016. “Ruth is really bad only on the knee-jerk stuff.”
Ginsburg had a unique bond with Sandra Day O’Connor, the court’s first female justice. “Sandra paved the way,” she said often, lamenting the Arizonan’s 2006 retirement for two reasons: Samuel Alito’s appointment made the court decidedly more conservative, and it left Ginsburg as its only woman for the next three years.
“In her work and days, she strived mightily to make what was momentous for women in 1981 … no longer extraordinary, but entirely expectable,” Ginsburg said following O’Connor’s 2018 announcement that she had dementia and was retiring from public life. “In that effort, I am among legions of women endeavoring to follow her lead.”
As a justice, Ginsburg was known for sharp questions that showed she had pored over the briefs and lower court opinions. She usually was the quickest to produce her own opinions, sometimes within a month of the oral arguments. Once home, she was known to work until the wee hours of the morning.
In a 2008 tribute marking Ginsburg’s 15-year anniversary on the court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted her “total disregard for the normal day-night work schedule adhered to by everyone else since the beginning of recorded history.”
“I think now I am the hardest-working justice,” she told USA TODAY matter-of-factly in 2013. “I wasn’t until (former Associate Justice) David Souter left us.”
Souter’s retirement in 2009 paved the way for Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina justice, who was followed by Kagan a year later – much to Ginsburg’s delight.
“The women are not shrinking violets,” she told USA TODAY. “They more than hold their own.”
Women’s rights heroine
Born in Brooklyn on the heels of the Great Depression, Ginsburg had yet to graduate high school when her mother died of cancer. She attended Cornell University and then Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of 500.
She transferred to Columbia for her final year of law school to follow her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a newly minted lawyer who became one of the nation’s leading tax attorneys. She graduated tops in her class, but when she sought a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, she was turned down because of her gender.
The young Ginsburg taught at Rutgers, then Columbia, and founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union – a credential that might have kept her off the Supreme Court in today’s hyper-partisan political climate.
Then she made history. She won five of six cases argued before the Supreme Court in the mid-1970s that opened doors for women. In Reed v. Reed, the court for the first time applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution to discrimination against women. In Craig v. Boren, it held for the first time that laws that discriminate on the basis of gender deserved heightened scrutiny, which means judges must view them with increased skepticism.
“She was literally the architect of the legal movement that led to protections for women under the Constitution,” said Marcia Greenberger, former co-president of the National Women’s Law Center.
Ginsburg often cited those early years at the lectern, rather than on the bench, as her most fulfilling.
“I count myself enormously fortunate to be around when it was possible to move society to the place where it should be for the benefit of all of us,” she said. “Everyone is the beneficiary of ending gender discrimination.”
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit – often called the nation’s second most powerful court because of its vast jurisdiction over the federal bureaucracy. There, she spent 13 years, serving alongside Scalia and, briefly, Clarence Thomas before their elevations to the Supreme Court.
At the Rose Garden ceremony marking her own nomination in 1993, Ginsburg recalled that, after graduating from Columbia University Law School in 1959, “not a law firm in the entire city of New York bid for my employment.” But for women 34 years later, she said, “no entry doors are barred.”
Still, she lamented the absence of an Equal Rights Amendment from the nation’s founding document. “That principle belongs in our Constitution,” she said.
When TIME magazine in 2015 named her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, it was Scalia who wrote the tribute.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had two distinguished legal careers, either one of which would alone entitle her to be one of TIME’s 100,” he wrote. “What only her colleagues know is that her suggestions improve the opinions the rest of us write, and that she is a source of collegiality and good judgment in all our work.”
‘A great diva’
Ruth and Martin Ginsburg had two children – a daughter, Jane, who teaches law at Columbia, and a son, James, who founded a classical music recording company in Chicago – and four grandchildren. They were married 56 years until his death in 2010; Ginsburg took her place on the court the very next day to announce a decision.
She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and went through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation without missing a day in court. A decade later, she had surgery for pancreatic cancer, a more deadly disease fortuitously caught in its infancy.
To keep in shape after emerging from Washington Hospital Center in 1999 weighing less than 100 pounds, Ginsburg became a gym rat, exercising twice a week with a personal trainer in the court’s gymnasium. She often boasted of being able to do 20 “male” pushups on hands and toes.
Still, she suffered medical setbacks, including the insertion of a heart stent in 2014 and a fall in 2018 that landed her in the hospital with three fractured ribs, forcing her to miss new Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s formal investiture ceremony.
During treatment for that fall, Ginsburg was found to have cancerous growths on her left lung. They were removed during a pulmonary lobectomy, and the recovery period forced her to miss six days of oral arguments at the court for the first time in her career.
Then in 2019 she was diagnosed once again with pancreatic cancer and underwent three weeks of radiation treatment. She missed a day of oral argument that November due to a stomach illness and was back in the hospital before Thanksgiving with chills and fever. The next year, she twice required hospitalization to remove gallstones and to treat an infection, prior to revealing her latest cancer recurrence.
Outside the court, Ginsburg thrived on two things: opera and grandchildren. She gave speeches on the depiction of the law in opera and was half the inspiration for Derrick Wang’s “Scalia-Ginsburg,” an opera focused on the duo’s dueling constitutional interpretations. In 2016, she made a cameo appearance in the opera “The Daughter of the Regiment” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, winning a standing ovation.
“In my dreams, I can be a great diva,” she said during a speech in Chautauqua, N.Y. “Often Renata Tebaldi, sometimes Beverly Sills or Marilyn Horne.”
Every year, Ginsburg would host real divas or other classical musicians at the court for private performances. She sat with her colleagues in the front row to hear the likes of Denyce Graves, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman, then lingered long after, perhaps imagining the career that never was.
In her chambers at the court, adorned with original artwork on loan from the Smithsonian as well as family photos, there was a special shot of her granddaughter Clara with then-first lady Hillary Clinton, taken in the early 1990s. Clara is a 2017 graduate of Harvard Law School.
Clinton’s loss to Trump in 2016 dashed Ginsburg’s hope of witnessing the ultimate in gender equality – the election of the nation’s first woman president.
“Yes,” she said during the earlier USA TODAY interview, imagining the event, “and wouldn’t that be fantastic?”
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