On Friday, September 18th, people around the world heard the news: US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died of complications from cancer. At only a little over five feet tall, she was small in stature but proved to be a giant in her life-long fight for gender equality and civil rights. Justice Ginsburg often spoke of the gender discrimination and intimidation that she faced as one of only nine female students in her class at Harvard Law School, as well as throughout her career. But through it all, she heeded her mother’s advice: “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” And that she was. Justice Ginsburg became the first editor of the Harvard Law Review (a highly-regarded law magazine) and after transferring to Columbia Law School to complete her law degree, she graduated first in her class. In 1959, she began clerking for US District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. Four years later, she began teaching at Rutgers Law School and then at her alma mater Columbia University in 1972. In 1980, President Carter appointed Ginsburg to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Thirteen years later, President Clinton nominated her for the US Supreme Court. When she was sworn in on August 10th, 1993, she became the second woman to ever take a seat as a justice of the US Supreme Court.
What were some of the most impactful cases that Justice Ginsburg either fought for or decided on as a judge?
Gender Discrimination Much?
1975: Weinberger v. Weisenfeld
If you thought Ruth Bader Ginsburg only fought for women, you might be in for a surprise. She fought for gender equality, and before she became a Supreme Court justice, she famously fought for cases on behalf of men. In 1975, Ginsburg fought for a husband who applied to get Social Security benefits (or partial income from the government) after his wife, the primary earner, died. But he was denied benefits. Why was this unusual? Generally, the law allowed a widow and her children to receive benefits from the state after the earner (usually the husband in those days) died. But should a husband be denied benefits just because he’s a man? After Ginsburg argued the case, the Supreme Court justices decided 8-0 to award benefits to the remaining parent, whether it’s a man or a woman.
Unsuitable For Women
1996: United States v. Virginia
Until 1996, the Virginia Military Institute was an all-male public college. Not for much longer. RBG was part of the Supreme Court majority judges who struck down the all-male policy in the United States versus Virginia case. Justice Ginsburg questioned the Institute’s claim that women were inherently unsuitable for the training program. She would later visit the Institute, which now has almost two hundred women in the program!
2000: Bush v. Gore
RBG is often associated with the phrase “I dissent,” as she disagreed with the official verdict. When was the phrase coined? During the case of George W. Bush versus Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. Florida was at the center of the controversy and set to recount the votes that would ultimately determine who won the election. The Bush campaign filed an application to stop the recount, and the Supreme Court judges granted his application. The recounting paused, and Bush won the election. RBG wrote, “I dissent” to explain why she disagreed. These two words were made famous because until then, Supreme Court judges usually wrote, “I respectfully dissent.” RBG wasn’t one to play by the rules!
What Is Tradition, Anyway?
2015: Obergefell v. Hodges
The Obergefell versus Hodges case pushed for same-sex couples to marry in all fifty states. RBG famously called out the lawyer and justices to question their ideas of traditional marriage. Justice Ginsburg shared examples of what was allowed in the conventional marriages a long time ago, one between a dominant male and a lower-ranking female, an idea that seems ridiculous today. The court rules 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriages.
Justice Ginsburg was an icon in every sense of the word. And while the question now is when and who will fill her big shoes, she will never be forgotten as the woman who inspired people to, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Thank you for fighting for all of us, Justice Ginsburg. It’s time for you to rest; we’ll carry on your torch from here.