Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Photo from Wikimedia Commons / Author of Photo: Supreme Court of the United States


* Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
* Former General Counsel of the ACLU
* Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, D.C. on September 18, 2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, March 15, 1933. After graduating from Cornell University, she attended law school, first at Harvard (1956-1958) and then at Columbia Law School, where she received her LL.B. in 1959.

After completing her studies, Ginsburg worked as a law clerk for Edmund Palmieri, Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, from 1959-61.

From 1961–1963, Ginsburg served as a research associate and then as associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. She was a Professor of Law at Rutgers University School of Law from 1963-72, and at Columbia Law School, where in 1972 she became the school’s first tenured female professor, from 1972–80

In 1970, Ginsburg co-founded the quarterly Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal to focus exclusively on women’s rights and the “feminist criticism” of law.

In 1971, Ginsburg helped launch the American Civil Liberties Union‘s Women’s Rights Project.

From 1973-80 she served as the ACLU’s General Counsel, and was on its Board of Directors from 1974-80.

In 1977 Ginsburg and feminist Brenda Feigen-Fasteau co-authored a report titled Sex Bias in the U.S. Code for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Identifying an array of federal laws that allegedly discriminated on account of sex, the report advocated the ratification of the then-pending Equal Rights Amendment. In this publication, Ginsburg:

  • called for the sex-integration of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, due to her belief that these organizations “perpetuate stereotyped sex roles”
  • called for sex-integration in “college fraternity and sorority chapters,” and for replacing them with “college social societies”
  • called for sex-integration in prisons, because “If the grand design of such institutions is to prepare inmates for return to the community as persons equipped to benefit from and contribute to civil society, then perpetuation of single-sex institutions should be rejected.”
  • reasoned that laws against prostitution were unconstitutional because “prostitution, as a consensual act between adults, is arguably within the zone of privacy protected by recent constitutional decisions”
  • urged readers to reject the notion that men should be regarded as “breadwinners,” and women as “homemakers”
  • called for reducing the age of consent for sexual acts to persons who are “less than 12 years old”
  • stressed a need for “a comprehensive program of government-supported child care”
  • called for the abolition of words with sexist connotations, including: “man,” “woman,” “manmade,” “mankind,” “husband,” “wife,” “mother,” and “father”
  • claimed that laws against bigamy were unconstitutional.

From 1977-78, Ginsburg was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) in Stanford, California.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her as a Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

During her time as a professor and ACLU counsel, Ginsburg worked to advance various feminist causes. In 1971 she helped write the ACLU brief in Reed v. Reed, where the Supreme Court struck down an Idaho law that preferred men to women as executors of estates.

Ginsburg’s most famous case promoting gender equity was Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), in which she represented a male plaintiff to demonstrate a particular law’s disparate impact. Her client was a young widower, Stephen Wiesenfeld, whose wife had been the couple’s principal breadwinner. After his wife’s death, Mr. Wiesenfeld received Social Security survivor benefits lower than those a woman would have received. The Court ultimately ruled that “[b]y providing dissimilar treatment for men and women who are … similarly situated, the challenged section violates the [Due Process] Clause.”

During her ACLU tenure, Ginsburg argued a total of six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five.

With the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Byron White in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to fill White’s vacated seat. Ginsburg was not Clinton’s first choice, but her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, successfully lobbied the President to consider her for the post. The Senate ultimately confirmed her by a vote of 97-3.

During her confirmation hearings, Ginsburg’s position on Roe v. Wade was a focal point of discussion. She previously had voiced criticism of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that upheld women’s right to abortion, causing some senators to wonder whether her support for abortion rights might be less than enthusiastic. But in fact, Ginsburg merely doubted the legitimacy of the sweep of the Court’s decision, arguing that the states would soon have achieved the same result on their own. The Court, she explained, should merely have overturned the particularly restrictive state laws at issue in the case.

As for abortion itself, Ginsburg said that the right to terminate a pregnancy was “something central to a woman’s life, her dignity…. And when government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a full adult human being responsible for her own choices.”

Ginsburg has repeatedly expressed her support for restrictions on the death penalty, sentencing guidelines, and parole decisions.

Justice Ginsburg rejects a “strict-constructionist reading” of the U.S. Constitution, maintaining that the document’s framers were too locked into their own time, gender, and class to be reliable guides on modern-day legal issues.

Ginsburg authored the 2000 book, Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights: Milestones to Equality.

Perhaps Ginsburg’s most famous work was her 1996 opinion in United States v. Virginia et al.  Writing for the majority, she upheld the 1992 appellate court decision ordering the admission of women to Virginia Military Institute (VMI). More controversial than the substance of the decision, which left intact the right of states to provide single-sex educational institutions for women, was Ginsburg’s favorable citation of Richard Morris’ claim that the history of the Constitution is the “story of the extension of Constitutional rights and protections to people once ignored or excluded.” This perspective views the Constitution as a malleable document which can be used as a vehicle for the expansion of rights.

Also among Ginsburg’s more notable rulings were the following:

  • She ruled to limit the scope of the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty of 1996, in Williams v. Warden Taylor (2000).
  • She ruled against the death penalty in Ramdass v. Angelone (2000). Two years later she ruled against capital punishment for juvenile murderers.
  • She ruled to restrict the rights of police officers to apply “probable cause” searches merely because a suspect flees, in Illinois v. Wardlow (2000).
  • She ruled to oppose the lengthening of prison sentences for particularly dangerous criminals, in Garner v. Jones (2000).
  • She dissented from the Supreme Court decision that effectively gave George W. Bush the victory in the 2000 presidential election.

After Democrats had won control of Congress in the November 2006 mid-term elections, Ginsburg opined that the relationship between lawmakers and judges was generally better when Congress was in Democratic hands. At a 2007 judges’ conference on judicial independence, she said, “Particularly since the 2006 election, I am pleased to relate, rapport between Congress and the federal courts has markedly improved.”

In 2007 Ginsburg dissented in the Supreme Court case of Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Writing about the case, Ginsburg stated: “Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity and right ‘to participate equally in the economic and social life of the nation.’ Their ability to realize this full potential, the Court recognized, is ultimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’”

In 2007, Forbes magazine named Ginsburg as the most powerful female lawyer, and the 20th most powerful woman, in the world.

In 2008 The New York Times reported that Ginsburg held assets of somewhere between $11 million and $50 million, and that, as such, she was most likely the Supreme Court’s wealthiest member.

In an interview during a visit to Cairo, which aired January 30, 2012 on Al-Hayat TV, Justice Ginsburg advised the Egyptian people to ignore the U.S. Constitution in preparing their own new constitution. Instead, Ginsburg lavished praise on several post-World War II foreign documents such as the South African constitution (which she called “a great piece of work”), Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the European Convention on Human Rights. As for her own country’s constitution, Justice Ginsburg said she “would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a new constitution in 2012.” It was just too “old,” she said. For details about the documents to which Ginsburg referred, click here.

Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, D.C. on September 18, 2020, due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.

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