Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the enigmatic, longtime Supreme Court justice who attained near cult-like status among progressive circles, died Friday at the age of 87 from complications surrounding metastatic pancreatic cancer.
The late Supreme Court justice, who spent more than two decades on the bench in the highest court of the land, is survived by her two children, Jane Carol and James Steven Ginsburg.
Ginsburg, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, was known for her soft-spoken demeanor that masked an analytical mind, a deep concern for the rights of every American and a commitment to upholding the Constitution.
She had battled back from two forms of cancer in the past but her health began to take a downturn in December 2018 when she underwent a pulmonary lobectomy after two malignant nodules were discovered in the lower lobe of her left lung.
On January 7, 2019, the Court announced she would miss oral arguments that day for the first time since she joined as she continued to recuperate from that surgery.
Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, N.Y., young Ruth’s early influence was her mother, Celia, who instilled in her daughter the value of education and dignity. “She taught me,” Ginsburg said, “be someone who holds fast to her convictions and her self-respect, someone who is a good teacher, but doesn’t snap back in anger. Recriminations do no good.”
To her lifelong sadness, Ruth Bader’s mother died of cancer the day before her high school graduation in 1948.
As a child, Ginsburg wanted to be an opera star, but soon found her brain would carry her farther than her voice, which remained tinged with a thick New York accent.
She finished first in her class as a Cornell undergrad. She completed her first two years of law school at Harvard Law School and transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year. Harvard awarded her an honorary degree in 2011.
While in law school, she juggled raising a daughter, helping her husband Martin recover from cancer, and finishing her own studies. As one of nine women at Columbia Law, her initial reception was chilly, with one professor telling her and the eight other women of the Class of 1959 how it felt to take the spots that should have gone to more “qualified” men.
She made the law review, and finished as the top student at Columbia, where she had transferred in her third year. Those impeccable academic credentials evidently were not good enough for Ginsburg to get a job in a New York law firm or a top judicial clerkship. So she went into teaching, and found a new calling.
Her personal experiences collided with monumental social changes in the 1960s. While teaching at Rutgers, Ginsburg feared losing her non-tenured position when she became pregnant, so she wore large clothing to hide it. One of the first cases she helped litigate involved teachers forced to give up their jobs when they became pregnant.
With the help of her students, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, winning five of them before an all-male group that included her future benchmates William Rehnquist, Harry Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens.
Her strategy was to take a measured approach, carefully choosing cases that would promote equality but not appear radical to often skeptical federal courts.
Ginsburg also tried to expand the 14th Amendment’s traditional ban on racial discrimination to gender, and to show the effect stereotyping had on limiting opportunities for women.
“Race discrimination was immediately perceived as evil, odious, and intolerable,” Ginsburg said during her 1993 confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. “But the response I got when I talked about sex discrimination was, ‘What are you talking about? Women are treated ever so much better than men.’ I was talking to an audience that thought… I was somehow critical about the way they treated their wives and their daughters.”
Among the cases she argued: Weinberger v. Wisenfeld (1975), in which a father wanted to stay home and take care of his young son after his wife had died suddenly in childbirth. Social Security would not pay benefits for the man, even though had the situation been reversed, the woman would receive money, based on the man’ salary. The thinking was: husbands earned the money, the wife took care of the house and family. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously for the father.
That success brought Ginsburg a national reputation and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the prestigious U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Thirteen years later, President Clinton chose her to fill the Supreme Court seat of retiring Justice Byron White, citing not only her experience but her “big heart.”
Ironically some of the opposition to her nomination came from feminists, who did not like her criticism over the legal reasoning of Roe v. Wade, which permitted abortion. That ruling grounded first trimester abortions in the right to privacy, thereby overturning state laws that varied widely on access to the procedure. Ginsburg believed a more gradual liberalization to abortion would have kept the issue back in the states, avoiding the social and political upheaval that has been part of Roe’s legacy. The law on abortion was evolving at the time of Roe, Ginsburg recalled in 2005. “The Supreme Court stopped all that by deeming every law– even the most liberal– as unconstitutional. That seemed to me not the way courts generally work.”
But Ginsburg, in her rulings, upheld reproductive choice. “When government controls that decision for her, she’s being treated as less than a full adult human being responsible for her own choices,” she said during her confirmation.
In 1999, came a near tragedy. Diagnosed with colon cancer, she underwent emergency surgery, yet two weeks later, she was back on the bench. While keeping up her workload, she had chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Her only public words at the time: “I am still mending but have progressed steadily.”
A 2009 diagnosis for pancreatic cancer led to fears she would retire then, but again, Ginsburg was back on the job within days, even working on her caseload from the hospital bed after initial surgery to remove the tumor. A year later, she was on the bench the day after her husband Martin died from cancer, telling friends privately he would have wanted it that way.
Later in her career, she developed an Internet cult following as the “Notorious RBG,” for her blistering dissents on divisive issues, and for her octogenarian workout routines inside the court’s gym. But controversy followed her, too, for her pointed 2016 criticism of then-candidate Donald Trump, calling him, among other things a “faker.”
In law and life, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a role model to the many people she encountered over the years. Her message of success and tolerance go hand in hand, as she explained in 1999, just a month after undergoing cancer surgery: “The challenge is to make and keep our communities places where we can understand, accommodate and celebrate our differences while pulling together for the common good.”
Ginsburg added: “No door should be closed to people willing to spend the hours of effort needed to make dreams come true.”