In 1960 a dean at Harvard Law School recommended one of his star pupils, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to serve as a clerk to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter. Though Frankfurter, like others familiar with Ginsburg, acknowledged her impeccable academic credentials, he confessed that he was not ready to hire a woman. This was neither the first nor the last instance where Ginsburg was defined by her gender rather than her formidable intellect. But the rejections galvanized in Ginsburg a fighting spirit to right the wrongs that women suffered so routinely in American society. Thus, much as lawyer and former Justice Thurgood Marshall had converted the prejudice he faced as a black into the engine fueling his crusade to topple institutional racism, so did Ginsburg act on the lessons she had learned from her life. As the legal architect of the modern women's movement, Ginsburg, more than any other person, exposed a body of discriminatory laws anathema to the spirit and letter of the United States Constitution. A biographical documentary about the famed Supreme Court Justice, RBG, premiered in 2018.
When President Bill Clinton announced the nomination of Ginsburg to fill the seat being vacated by retiring Supreme Court Justice Byron White, the initial reaction focused less on her qualifications and more on whether the president had botched the selection process. Clinton was accused of indecisiveness and insensitivity, as he had publicly dangled the names of other candidates - in one instance asking a Boston judge to prepare an acceptance speech - before giving the nod to Ginsburg. But once the political dust settled, Ginsburg's record guided the discussion. With few exceptions, legal observers praised her both for the ground-breaking advances she had won as a litigator and for the scholarly precision that had marked her 13-year tenure on the bench. She served on the Supreme Court through illness and the death of her husband, and in 2014 dismissed questions about the possibility of her retiring.
Early Life and Education
Ruth Joan Bader was born March 15, 1933, in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, New York, to a comfortable, middle-class family. Celia Bader was the driving force in her daughter's life, a role model at a time when women had to fight for the privileges and rights that men enjoyed by default. "I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons," the New York Times quoted Ginsburg as saying in her acceptance of Clinton's nomination. After graduating from high school, Ginsburg attended Cornell University, and subsequently Harvard Law School, where she distinguished herself academically and served on the Law Review. In the clubby, male-dominated world of upper crust law, Ginsburg was told that she and her eight female classmates, out of a class of 500, were taking the places of qualified males. She transferred to Columbia University after two years, when her husband, who would become one of the country's preeminent tax attorneys, took a job in New York. But gender discrimination continued to overshadow her scholastic achievements. Although she graduated at the top of her class, law firms, which normally enter fierce bidding wars for such a star, refused to hire her.
After a clerkship for a district judge in New York, Ginsburg joined the faculty of Rutgers University where, in order to elude the Draconian employment policies covering child-bearing women, she concealed her second pregnancy by wearing clothes too big for her. In 1972 after teaching a course on women and the law at Harvard, which denied her tenure, she was snatched up by Columbia as the first tenured female faculty member in the law school's history. Although she wasted no time making a name for herself as a legal scholar, it was as a litigator - she was counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she directed the Women's Rights Project - that her keen, laser-sharp mind found its greatest outlet.
The women's movement took off in the early 1970s due to a confluence of factors, including the inspiration provided by the victories recently won by civil rights activists, the increasing number of women working outside the home and encountering employment discrimination, and a growing feminist awareness that the United States, though progressive in some areas, was laden with gender-discriminating institutions. For Ginsburg the central issue was the strategy she and others would use to force the desired changes in society. Just as years earlier the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had recognized that racism needed to be tackled in the courts and not in the political arena - where, after all, the Jim Crow laws had been born - Ginsburg found her target in those laws by which society's inequalities were both tolerated and promoted. But, on a more basic level, Ginsburg's approach revealed an unfailing political instinct. While many of her colleagues expected her to take on classic employment discrimination cases, and thus take a broad swipe at male dominance in the work place, Ginsburg turned to cases in which men and families, in addition to women, were victimized by government policies that discriminated on the basis of gender. A former ACLU colleague was quoted as telling Legal Times, "We were young and very green. She had it all so carefully thought through. She knew exactly what she needed to do."
In a 1973 case before the Supreme Court, Ginsburg successfully argued against a federal statute that gave more housing and medical benefits to men within the armed service than to women. The statute allowed a man to automatically claim his wife as a dependent, even if she did not depend on his income, and thus claim the benefits, while the woman in uniform would qualify for those benefits only after showing that her husband received more than half his support from her. Speaking before an all-male court, Ginsburg expertly blew out of the water a government statute that, on the one hand, disadvantaged a man who is a dependent and, on the other, minimized the economic contributions of women. In another case, Ginsburg convinced the court that a provision of the Social Security Act discriminated against men and the families of women because it gave certain benefits to widows and not to widowers. Ginsburg also convinced the court to strike down a law ostensibly benefiting women - an Oklahoma statute that said women over the age of 18 could purchase alcohol while men had to be at least 21.
By most accounts, had Ginsburg gone the route of arguing only those cases in which women were the victims of discriminatory laws, she would not have effectively revealed the absurdity and unconstitutionality of all laws that treat men and women differently. Indeed, the crux of her legal philosophy - that the law cannot proscribe rights to one group and not to another - would surely have collapsed if she sought to protect women more than men. She had little patience for the claim of some feminists that women think differently than men and are inherently better suited for certain activities, be it child-rearing or government service.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia
Having won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court and showing, more than any other lawyer, that the equal protection provision of the Fourteenth Amendment applies not just on the basis of race but on gender, Ginsburg, in the waning days of the administration of President Jimmy Carter, was named a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Though Ginsburg has been hailed as the Thurgood Marshall of the women's movement, she, unlike Marshall (who saw his judgeship as an opportunity to continue the activism and advocacy he had practiced as a lawyer), brought a cautious, measured disposition to the court. Her belief, shared by many conservatives, is that, with few exceptions, the courts should interpret laws and leave policy-making in the electoral, political domain. Ginsburg further delighted rightists with her vote to dismiss an appeal by a homosexual sailor who was contesting his discharge from the Navy, and with her statement that affirmative action policies can backfire by demeaning the achievements of blacks. In 1987 cases that produced a division on the court, Ginsburg voted 85 percent of the time with Judge Robert Bork, an arch conservative whose nomination to the Supreme Court would be torpedoed by Democrats, and 38 percent of the time with Judge Patricia Wald, one of the court's staunchest liberals. Still, Ginsburg curried favor with liberals with her votes supporting freedom of speech and broadening access to the courts.
U.S. Supreme Court
With the retirement of Justice Byron White, President Clinton reportedly sought out a replacement with the intellect to counter the court's chief conservative ideologue, Antonin Scalia, and the political skills to pull toward the left members of the court's pivotal centrist block. The first choice was New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who declined the nomination. When the name of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was floated, environmental groups successfully lobbied to keep him in his present position. The frontrunner in the final days was Boston Judge Stephen Breyer, who, according to reports, had been told to draft an acceptance speech. But Clinton decided not to proceed with Breyer, evidently because the president was less impressed with the judge after the two met in the White House. Following that meeting, Clinton asked to see the results of the preliminary background checks on Ginsburg, who had been on the short list for nomination.
While some commentators criticized Clinton for zig-zagging and for turning his back on Breyer, Ginsburg received the accolades of the legal community. Court observers praised her commitment to the details of the law, her incisive questioning of lawyers arguing before her, and her talent for winning over colleagues with dispassionate and well-reasoned arguments. Clinton was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "I believe that in the years ahead she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has been on the Court of Appeals, so that our judges can become an instrument of our common unity in the expression of their fidelity to the Constitution." Conservatives, grateful that a liberal ideologue had not been nominated, rallied behind Ginsburg, as did liberals, believing they had found a foil to Scalia, even though the two jurists are good friends. In a widely reported joke, when Scalia was asked with whom he would want to be stranded on a desert island, Mario Cuomo or Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, his answer was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ironically, the loudest concerns about the nomination of this champion of equality came from some women's and abortion rights groups. Although pro-choice, Ginsburg, in articles and speeches, has questioned the reasoning underlying Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision protecting abortions under a right to privacy not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. According to Ginsburg and a growing number of legal scholars, abortion rights are most convincingly grounded in the equal protection provisions of the Constitution rather than in a nebulous right to privacy. In keeping with her legal philosophy of judicial restraint - that is, minimizing the political activism of the court - Ginsburg has argued that state legislatures should have more flexibility than Roe provides, and that, at the time of the decision, the political atmosphere was favoring a liberalization of strict abortion laws, a claim disputed by some abortion rights advocates.
Confirmation to the Supreme Court often involves more a political brawl than a deliberative review of a nominee's record, but the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Ginsburg were remarkably free of rancor and partisanship. Setting the tone for the friendly hearings, Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, echoing statements of his Democrat and Republican colleagues, said, according to the Boston Globe, that Ginsburg had "already helped to change the meaning of equality in our nation."
On August 3, 1993, Ginsburg was confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 96 to 3, becoming the 107th Supreme Court justice, its second female jurist, and the first justice to be named by a Democratic president since Lyndon B. Johnson. She was then sworn in during August 10 ceremonies held at the White House and the Supreme Court itself. The three senators to oppose her confirmation were Republicans Jesse Helms of North Carolina, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, and Bob Smith of New Hampshire. President Clinton said in a statement quoted by the Detroit Free Press, "I am confident that she will be an outstanding addition to the court and will serve with distinction for many years."
Ginsberg underwent surgery to treat colon cancer in September 1999 and recovered without complication. She underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment following the procedure from October of 1999 to June of 2000.
After the unprecedented Election 2000, the fate of the presidency rested on the shoulders of the members of the Supreme Court. The Court halted a ballot re-count in Florida which - in essence - placed George W. Bush in the presidency.
In October of 2002, Ginsburg was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Later that year, information was released that cited Ginsburg as the wealthiest of the mostly-wealthy Supreme Court Justices. The study said that she had between $7.7 and $33.7 million, not counting certain holdings. In 2007 Ginsburg made her presence known on the court by writing a dissent regarding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. She stated, "The court was now differently composed than it was when we last considered a restrictive abortion regulation." She also wrote comments supporting the turnover of what she deemed a discrimination case involving a female worker who was paid less than her male counterparts.
In 2009 Ginsburg experienced some more health issues and had surgery in February of 2009, after a small tumor was found in her pancreas during an annual exam. The next year, after fully recovering, Ginsburg received an honorary doctorate degree from Princeton University during its 263rd commencement ceremony on June 1, 2010. Not long after receiving this degree, Ginsburg's husband, Martin Ginsburg, died at the end of June from metastatic cancer at the age of 78. She and her husband had celebrated their fifty-sixth wedding anniversary only one week prior. The next year, on May 26, 2011, Ginsburg received another honorary degree - this time from Harvard University. In 2012 Ginsburg traveled to Egypt to meet with Egyptian judges, legal experts, and law faculty and students to discuss Egypt's transition to democracy.
In an interview with Elle magazine in 2014, Ginsburg was asked whether she would resign during President Obama's term so that he would be the one to choose her replacement. Ginsburg replied that the assumption that Obama could appoint a liberal justice and have him or her confirmed was misguided, implying that the Republican House would mount a filibuster. "As long as I can do the job full steam...I think I'll recognize when the time comes that I can't any longer. But now I can," she said, ending any discussion of her retirement.
In 2015, Ginsburg's support of gay rights proved to be pivotal when the Supreme Court decided to address the constitutionality of states banning gay marriage. Ginsburg argued that traditions need to be challenged for society to evolve, that marriage cannot be tied to procreation, and that allowing gay marriages takes nothing away from traditional couples. The court ruled against the bans, making gay marriage legal in all 50 states. The decision was controversial, but Ginsburg was praised for her arguments.
A biographical documentary about Ginsburg, entitled RBG, premiered in 2018. The documentary chronicled the life, career, and achievements of the famed Supreme Court justice. It also chronicled her close friendship with ideological opponent Justice Scalia. On May 7, 2019, Ginsberg was awarded the Gilel Storch Award by the country of Sweden. The honor is given to people whose work has promoted democratic, universal, and humanistic values.
Born March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY; daughter of Nathan (a haberdasher) and Celia Bader; married Martin David Ginsburg (an attorney), 1954; children: Jane, James. Education: Cornell University, A.B., 1954; attended Harvard University Law School, 1956-58; Columbia University, LL.B., 1959.
Clerk for U.S. District Judge, 1959-61; researcher and project director, Columbia University, 1961-63; assistant professor of law, Rutgers University, 1963-66, associate professor, 1966-69, professor, 1969-72; professor of law, Columbia University, 1972-80; general counsel and director of Women's Rights Project, American Civil Liberties Union, 1973-80; judge, U.S. Court of Appeal, 1980-93; U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1993--.
Honorary degrees from Lund University (Sweden), 1969; American University, 1981; Vermont Law School, 1984; Georgetown University, 1985; DePaul University, 1985; Brooklyn Law School, 1987; Hebrew Union College, 1988; Amherst College, 1991; Rutgers University, 1991; Brown University, 2002; Willamette University, 2009; Princeton University, 2010; Harvard University, 2011. Gilel Storch Award, Sweden, 2019.
- Boston Globe, July 21, 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, August 4, 1993.
- Economist, June 19, 1993.
- Grand Rapids Press (Grand Rapids, Michigan), June 1, 2002.
- Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2001.
- Legal Times, June 21, 1993.
- New York Times, June 15, 1993; June 27, 1993, July 8, 2009.
- Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), March 17, 2002.
- Time, June 28, 1993.
- Times (London, England), December 12, 2000.
- U.S. News & World Report, June 28, 1993.
- " Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shuts Down Gay Marriage Opponents With These 3 Perfect Rebuttals," Bustle, http://www.bustle.com/articles/79730-ruth-bader-ginsburg-shuts-down-gay-marriage-opponents-with-these-3-perfect-rebuttals (May 31, 2011).
- "Ruth Bader Ginsburg Husband, Martin Ginsburg, Dies of Metastatic Cancer," CBS News, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20009007-10391704.html (May 31, 2011).
- "Ruth Ginsburg Documentary 'RBG' Earns Favorable Verdict," CNN, August 21, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/02/entertainment/rbg-review/index.html (August 24, 2018).
- "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Talks Constitution, Women, and Liberty on Egyptian TV," Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/01/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-egypt_n_1248527.html (April 29, 2013).
- "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg Has Pancreatic Cancer Surgery," Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=us-supreme-court-justice-ruth-ginsb-2009-02-05 (May 31, 2011).
- "Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: I'm Not Going Anywhere," Elle, http://www.elle.com/life-love/society-career/supreme-court-justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg (October 17, 2014).