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Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933–2020), influential U.S. Supreme Court justice

by Linnea Crowther

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the second woman and the first Jewish woman appointed to the court in U.S. history.

Supreme Court tenure

Nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg was noted for her liberal dissents and her longevity on the court. Among Ginsberg’s notable rulings were United States v. Virginia (1996), in which Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion stating that the Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admissions policy was unconstitutional; Bush v. Gore (2000), in which she dissented from the court’s decision to end the presidential election recount; and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), in which she made decisive arguments that led to the court’s granting of marriage rights to same-sex couples.

Fighting for women’s rights

One of the primary aims of Ginsburg’s career was advancing women’s rights. One of only nine women in a law school class of about 500, Ginsburg had to fight for respect and status as a young woman lawyer. She went on to co-found the first U.S. law journal to focus on women’s rights, as well as co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Prior to her appointment as judge, she argued several cases that advanced women’s rights, including Reed v. Reed (1971), which extended the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to apply to women as well as men.

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U.S. Court of Appeals

Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg served as a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, to which she was nominated by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. While serving there, she gained a reputation as a moderate judge, which held true through the time of her confirmation to the Supreme Court 13 years later. It was only in later years that she became known as a staunch member of the court’s liberal wing.

Cancer fights

Ginsburg fought cancer several times after her appointment to the Supreme Court. The first was in 1999, when she underwent surgery for colon cancer, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, without missing a single day on the bench. This was followed by pancreatic cancer in 2009 and lung cancer in 2018. Ginsburg briefly missed oral arguments in in 2019 for the first time while recovering from her left-lung lobectomy, though she remained determined not to step down from the bench while she still had the mental faculties to serve. In July 2020, Ginsburg announced she was undergoing chemotherapy for a recurrence of cancer.

The Notorious R.B.G.

Ginsburg became a towering figure of the political left in later years, elevated to pop culture stardom and referred to as “The Notorious R.B.G.,” a moniker lifted from rapper The Notorious B.I.G. She was beloved for her fiery devotion to human rights, the subject of documentary “RBG” and feature film “On the Basis of Sex.” Devotees also loved Ginsburg for her signature style of a wide variety of decorative collars worn with her judicial robes. She collected collars from around the world and had a favorite to wear when issuing a majority opinion and another for a dissent, which made her views crystal clear before she ever uttered a word.

Ginsburg on gender equality

“[W]hen I’m sometimes asked when there will be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” —from a speech at the 10th Circuit Bench & Bar Conference in 2012

Funeral details

Ginsburg will lie in repose at the Supreme Court on Wednesday and Thursday, September 23 and 24, with public visitation available from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Thursday. On Friday, September 25, Ginsburg will lie in state in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. She will be the first woman and the first Jewish person to receive this honor. Interment will be private at Arlington National Cemetery. In Ginsburg’s honor, the Supreme Court has draped black wool crepe on her seat, the bench in front of it, and the Courtroom doors, in a tradition dating back to 1873.

Tributes to Justice Ginsburg

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.” —Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, in a statement

Full obituary: Washington Post

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