Ruth Bader Ginsburg served on the United States Supreme Court for more than 27 years. (Wikimedia Commons)
On September 18th, 2020, our nation lost a hero in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
I could use this article to expound on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s response to her death. Within an hour of the announcement of her passing, he promised the confirmation of a new justice before the election — just 46 days away. When Justice Scalia died in February of 2016, President Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland in March. Leader McConnell blocked the nomination, arguing that during an election year, voters should choose the president to fill the vacated seat. His shameless hypocrisy, mockery of our nation’s precedents, and political opportunism is legendary, but with this, he has reached a new low.
No, I refuse to spend this time speculating over what pernicious politics will emerge from this hero’s passing.
Justice Ginsburg does not deserve that. Her legacy went far beyond politics.
Ginsburg grew up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother, Celia, had forfeited her own college education to work in a garment factory in order to help pay for her uncle’s tuition — a sacrifice which Ginsburg never forgot. The day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation, she lost Celia to cancer.
Ginsburg later said, “It was one of the most trying times in my life, but I knew that she wanted me to study hard and get good grades and succeed in life. So that’s what I did.”
The next fall, Ginsburg enrolled at Cornell University, where she would go on to graduate at the top of her class and meet Marty Ginsburg. Shortly after marrying, she and Marty attended Harvard Law School together.
There, as one of nine women in her class, Ginsburg deflected the routine comments from professors and fellow classmates that challenged her place in such a prestigious institution: one of which being, how could she justify taking the place of a man?
Boy talk was not the only problem for Ginsburg. She was barred from the reading room and dorms, and the exam buildings only provided restrooms for men.
Despite both the physical and psychological barriers to her success, Ginsburg went on to make the reputable Harvard Law Review, an honor exclusively bestowed upon the most impressive members of the class. She did so while co-raising her infant daughter, Jane.
Shortly after, Ginsburg was presented with another test to her strength. Her husband had been diagnosed with colon cancer.
While Marty underwent intensive radiation treatments, Ginsburg stepped in to take over his course load, spending her evenings typing his class notes and transcribing his final. It would not be until after finishing Marty’s assignments and putting her three year-old to bed that Ginsburg would turn to her own studies. At this point, it would be past 2 AM, and she learned to survive with just two hours of sleep.
Marty later regained his health and graduated, thanks to his wife. He accepted a job as a tax attorney in New York, which meant Ginsburg would not be able to finish her third year at Harvard Law. She was determined to stay with her family, worried for Marty’s health. She transferred to Columbia to complete her requirements, but the Dean denied her a degree from Harvard Law.
In 1959, Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School, again at the top of her class. Yet Ginsburg was largely unsuccessful in landing a job. In post WWII-America, a Jewish woman did not fit the “lawyer-mold” for many of the male-dominated firms to which she applied.
Ginsburg reflected, “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible.”
Ginsburg’s persistence paid off, however. Four years later, after serving as a clerk, she became a law professor at Rutgers University, and by 1972, she was the first female to be awarded tenure at Columbia Law School.
In between these two periods of teaching, Ginsburg penned her first brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of Sally Reed, who was challenging an Idaho Probate Code that stated “men must be preferred to females” in designating administrators of an estate. The Court unanimously sided with Sally Reed, deciding the code violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Ginsburg had achieved her first win against gender discrimination, and a year later, she won another battle with the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit — this time, defending a man against discrimination on the basis of sex — in Moritz v. Commissioner, a case she brought with Marty. Ginsburg used this case to expertly convey to the male judges the implications of sex-based discrimination, as she had their ears when the victim of concern was in fact a man.
Between 1973 and 1976, Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and argued six gender discrimination cases in front of the Supreme Court. She won all but one.
By 1993, Ginsburg had been appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and had caught the attention of President Bill Clinton. On June 14th, 1993, Ginsburg became the second woman to be appointed to the highest court of the land.
From then on, Ginsburg made her unapologetic convictions known.
In 1996, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for her first landmark case, United States v. Virginia, ensuring that the Virginia Military Institute be legally obliged to admit women: “Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” This case was the first step in embracing women as equal contributors in service to our nation’s freedoms, both figuratively and literally.
In Olmstead v. L.C., Ginsburg defended the rights of those with disabilities. In Stenberg v. Carhart, Ginsburg applied both Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in her argument against a state regulation that instituted obstacles for women seeking an abortion for an inviable fetus.
Perhaps one of the most notable victories for Ginsburg was Obergefell v. Hodges, which made same-sex marriage in the United States constitutional under the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause. Ginsburg proudly endorsed Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in securing an American’s right to marry the person they love.
Ginsburg established herself as a staunch protector of American civil liberties not just through her Supreme Court victories, but also through her fiery dissents.
In Gonzales v. Carhart, Ginsburg wrote: “The court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety. This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution — ideas that have long since been discredited.”
Ginsburg retaliated against the “insidious way in which women are victim to pay discrimination” in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
In her dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, she warned against the Court exercising religious preference when Hobby Lobby used religious grounds to justify the denial of birth control coverage.
In Bush v. Gore, Ginsburg defended the legitimacy of American elections when President Bush only won the Florida electoral votes by a margin of 537 votes and the Court refused to recommend a recount.
While writing her opinions on the Court, Ginsburg endured five bouts of cancer. She missed oral arguments just twice, delivering many of her arguments with a chemo-drip in her arm.
Ginsburg will be remembered for her tireless commitment to judicial truth and integrity on the court. But her impact went far beyond her service on our Supreme Court.
We knew her as the feminist icon, the dissenter, the trailblazer, the Notorious RBG.
For many of us, Ginsburg represented courage. Courage to pick up the good fight, even when it is an uphill battle. Courage to defend our highest institutions. Courage to choose country over party. Courage to hold firm for the protection of women. People of color. The LGBTQ+ community. The environment. Healthcare. The franchise. Courage to keep on persisting.
Thanks to her, many of us found our own courage.
When I was in 9th grade, I taped a picture of her onto my field hockey stick before I played in the state championship. In similar situations where I have needed motivation, I have looked to her. She meant that to so many of us. She still means that to so many of us.
While we no longer have the privilege of her presence on our bench, we shall always carry her spirit.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was our Atlas, holding the weight of our nation’s promise on her shoulders. She has earned her rest, and it is time for us to relieve her of this burden.
But before we pick up this charge, let us take a moment to honor her memory. Thank you, Justice.