Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Supermajority Education Fund

September 19, 2020

On Friday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87 of complications from pancreatic cancer. She died on the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah, which began last night. Jewish author and book critic Ruth Franklin tweeted last night that anyone who dies on this particular day is held in high esteem. 

“According to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on Rosh Hashanah, which began tonight, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness,” she wrote. “Baruch Dayan HaEmet.”

As NPR reported, Ginsburg’s final statement, which she said to her granddaughter Clara Spera, was: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” With this statement, Ginsburg addressed the fact that her absence means the rights of millions of Americans could hang in the balance for years to come. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said in her comments on Instagram Live Friday night, everything from labor rights to reproductive rights could be affected by the Justice who replaces Ginsburg. 

“For those of you who don’t know, this vacancy on the court is extremely, extremely significant,” she said, adding that “this moment is not the time for despair. It is not the time for cynicism. It is not the time to give up.’”

As we prepare for the presidential election on November 3 (just six weeks away) and honor Ginsburg’s legacy, here are some important things to know and remember about her. 

She was a Brooklyn girl 

Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933 to Celia (Amster) Bader and Nathan Bader in Brooklyn, New York. Those closer to Ruth also called her “Kiki,” a family nickname her older sister, Marilyn, gave her because she was a “kicky baby.” Marilyn died of meningitis at the age of 6, when Ginsburg was only 2. Her mother, Celia, died of cancer the day before Ruth’s high school graduation. 

She met her husband in college

After high school, Ruth attended Columbia University, where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Cornell University in 1954. When Martin, also known as “Marty,” was stationed as an ROTC officer in the Army Reserve, the couple moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Ginsburg worked for the Social Security Administration. Shortly after, she had the couple’s first child, Jane, in 1955. 

She paved the way for women in the legal field

In the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine female students enrolled. When Marty was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, it was his wife who kept him up to speed with his classes in law school, while doing her own coursework. She graduated first in her class from Columbia Law School, which she transferred to from Harvard after Marty accepted a job there. After struggling to get a job because she was a woman, she accepted a teaching position at Rutgers Law School. When she learned that she and the women she worked with were paid less than their male colleagues, she filed a class-action lawsuit against the university and won. 

She made history in the Supreme Court before she was on it

In the late 1960s, Ginsburg wrote a brief for Reed v. Reed, when she was a volunteer for the ACLU. This “turning point case” as Ginsburg referred to it, concerned a woman named Sally Reed who had separated from her husband in Iowa. When their son died, state law automatically appointed her husband as the executor of the estate. Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray — longtime members of the ACLU Board of Directors who played a key role in turning the ACLU’s attention to gender inequality — were the co-authors on the brief. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Sally Reed’s favor and said that giving preference to one sex would be “the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” It was the first case in which the Supreme Court applied the Fourteenth Amendment to women’s rights. The following year in 1972, Ginsburg became the founding member of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.

In 1973, she took on the case of Air Force officer Sharron Fronteiro and her husband, Joseph, who had been denied the same housing benefits given to female military spouses, on the assumption that a man was not likely to be the dependent spouse. During the Frontiero case, Ginsburg gave her first address to the Supreme Court. She quoted women’s rights advocate Sarah Grimkè: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Ginsburg’s team won the case. 

She became the second woman and first Jewish Supreme Court Justice in 1993

During his first year as president, Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court; she took her oath on August 10, 1993, with Marty by her side. 

Ginsburg is famous for her dissents, especially as her colleagues on the court became more and more conservative. When the court ruled against Lilly Ledbetter, a woman who was paid less than her male colleagues at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., it was Ginsburg who read aloud a piercing dissenting opinion in the case. “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” she said. “The ball is in Congress’ court.”

In 2014, when the Supreme Court sided with craft store Hobby Lobby when it challenged the Affordable Care Act as it applies to contraception, Ginsburg wrote a 35-page dissent. 

“In the Court’s view, RFRA demands accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith—in these cases, thousands of women employed by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga or dependents of persons those corporations employ,” she said. “Persuaded that Congress enacted RFRA to serve a far less radical purpose, and mindful of the havoc the Court’s judgment can introduce, I dissent.”

“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought to the end,” former president Barack Obama wrote in an Instagram post Friday night. He referenced the late justice’s dedication, as recently as this summer, when the court ruled that LGBTQ employees are protected by federal employment protection laws.