She was diminutive in stature, but larger than life in all other respects. As a Supreme Court Justice her fiery dissenting opinions earned her the sobriquet “Notorious R. P. G.” Her 23 year tenure on the Supreme Court was one of the longest in history. She was a powerful and tireless advocate for the rights of women, minorities, and the disadvantaged as well as other liberal causes. As you will see, this attitude was shaped by her experiences beginning in childhood and continuing throughout her life.
As the de facto leader of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court she often clashed ideologically with the more conservative justices, such as Antonin Scalia and William Rehnquist, but, at the same time, they exhibited a mutual respect for each other that should serve as an example for all officials in the legislative and executive branches of government.
Scalia often praised her tenacity as an advocate for her causes. Regarding women’s rights, he called her the “Thurgood Marshall of that cause – so to speak.” Those who are familiar with Marshall’s record and accomplishments regarding civil rights will recognize that as high praise, indeed. Despite their sharp ideological differences she and Scalia were close friends with shared outside interests, e. g. opera and cooking, and enjoyed each other’s company away from the Court. She was devastated by his untimely death in 2016.
Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, NY. Her father was a first-generation immigrant from Ukraine. Her mother was born in the US. She had an older sister who died from meningitis at age six. Bader’s childhood nickname was “Kiki,” which was derived from the fact she had been a “kick baby” in the womb.
In elementary school Bader’s class had several girls named Joan, which apparently led to some confusion. So, Bader’s mom suggested that the teacher call her by her middle name, Ruth. Thereafter, “Joan” was kaput, and she became known as “Ruth.”
Ruth’s mother was determined that Ruth would receive a strong education, which was most unusual for a female in those years. Undoubtedly, this desire was fueled by her own experience. Due to limited financial resources, her parents could only afford to send one child to college. So, they sent her brother, and her desire for a college education was thwarted. That was very common at that time. Her desire for Ruth was to become a teacher, a noble profession to be sure, but a far cry from what she ultimately achieved. If that had come to pass think how different history would have been. Sadly, Ruth’s mom died from cancer the day before Ruth’s high school graduation, so she never got to see what Ruth accomplished.
Ruth attended Cornell and graduated with a BA in government. She made Phi Beta Kappa and was the highest ranking female student in her class. More importantly, she met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg.
In 1956 Ruth enrolled in Harvard Law School, one of nine women out of a class of 500. Supposedly, the Dean invited all nine females to a welcoming dinner at his house. A nice gesture, but the story goes he asked each of them “why are you at Harvard Law School taking the place of a man?” Can you imagine a Dean of a law school asking such a question today?
When her husband got a job in NY she transferred to Columbia. Upon graduation Ginsburg had difficulty finding a job despite the fact that she had been ranked tied for first in her class.. She was being denied due to her gender. The deniers included Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. It was only after one of her law school professors strong-armed a US District Court judge to hire her that she got a job.
Some of the highlights of her early career included the following:
- In 1963 her first job was a professorship at Rutgers, where she was told she would be paid less than a man because she had a husband with a well-paying job. At the time she was one of only 20 female law professors in the nation.
- In 1970 she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, which was the first US law journal that focused on women’s rights.
- In 1972 she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, which specialized in gender discrimination against women, of which there was plenty. She handled hundreds of cases, including six that she argued before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. (One might wonder how she lost the one she did.) Shrewdly, some of the cases she chose had male plaintiffs, which demonstrated to the SC justices that discrimination could and did cut both ways.
- In 1980 President Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for DC.
- In 1993 President Clinton appointed her to the SC. She became only the second woman to serve on the SC after Sandra Day O’Connor.
During her tenure on the SC she was involved in many landmark cases. As I said above, she became known for her “fiery” dissenting opinions, earning the sobriquet “The Notorious RBG.” For me, the two cases that stood out are the 1996 decision that required Virginia Military Institute to accept female applicants and the 2000 decision that made George W. Bush president.
In recent years she was beset with a plethora of physical problems, such as broken ribs, a procedure for a blocked artery, and, of course, the big one, cancer. Through it all she refused to retire. She viewed her work on the SC as too important to abandon.
The tributes have been pouring in from various sources – both US and foreign, and both supporters and adversaries. Some examples:
1. President Trump called her an “amazing woman.”
2. Former President Jimmy Carter – “We [Rosalynn and I] join countless Americans in mourning the loss of a great woman.”
3. Chief Justice John Roberts – “Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature.”
Perhaps, this is not a time for politics, but as they say, in a presidential election year, “everything is about the election.” The election is the proverbial “elephant in the room.”
Pols on both sides of the aisle will be anxiously waiting to see (a) when (not if) Mr. Trump will nominate a replacement, and (b) who it will it be. Mr. Trump will be widely criticized, but it is the smart move, politically. The new justice would likely remain in place for decades.
The politics of replacing Ginsburg are very complicated. Most observers believe Mr. Trump will act sooner rather than later, while the GOP still has a majority in the Senate, perhaps even before Election Day. The president has already published a list of potential appointees, and chances are he will choose someone from that list. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled the Senate is primed to “fast track” a nomination.
On the other hand, the Dems desperately want Ginsburg to be replaced by a liberal. Thus, they want to delay matters in the hope that they will seize control of the Senate on November 3 and/or that Biden will defeat Mr. Trump. The matter is being further complicated by the fact that Biden has not yet published his list of possible successors, and he seems to be reluctant to do so. Remember, the new Senate will take over on January 1, not on Inauguration Day, so the GOP has a narrow window of time in which to act.
An additional complication is that the GOP’s control of the Senate is very tenuous. Only a majority vote is required for approval, but there are only 53 GOP senators, and many of them are embroiled in tough re-election campaigns. Therefore, they may be reluctant to support the Administration on a vote this controversial so close to an election. Additionally, two of them – Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski – have already expressed reluctance to voting on a replacement until after the election.
In short, what we will likely get is the last thing we need in this already tumultuous election year. More controversy, more animosity, and more violent protesting/rioting. Stay tuned.
Ginsburg was the recipient of a slew of honors. For example:
- In 2002 she was inducted into National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- In 2009 she was named one of the “100 Most Powerful Women.”
- In 2012 she was named Glamour Magazine’s “Woman of the Year.”
- In 2015 Time Magazine dubbed her one of the “100 Most Influential People.”
Ginsburg’s years’ long battle with cancer was well-documented. Many people grew to admire her strength, determination and dedication to her work. When a reporter asked her when she thought there would be enough women on the SC, she replied “when there are nine.” And she meant it.
During the latter stages of the Obama Administration many of her friends were urging her to retire, so that Obama could name a liberal replacement. She adamantly refused. She admired the longevity of Justice John Paul Stevens, who had retired at the ripe old age of 90 after having served 35 years. She wanted to beat that record. At the time of her death she had served 27 years, and was the fourth-oldest Justice in history.
Ginsburg passed away on September 18. She dedicated her life to fighting for the disadvantaged and was an iconic role model to women. She was loved, admired and respected by supporters and opponents alike. Rest in peace Ruth. You were a tower of strength, and you will be sorely missed.