The death of a Supreme Court Justice is always a monumental event, mainly because it triggers a replacement. That process, like practically everything else in our world in the last few decades (and especially now!) is hyper-politicized. There is a valid basis for the passion surrounding these decisions, regardless of which party controls the White House and the Senate or where the battle lines are drawn. Today, I’m not going to touch on any of that, the media has that topic covered. Today, I want to take a step back and recognize the person whose death sparked this frenzy, by looking at her life. Who was Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
She always remained “Kiki” to her family, a nickname given to her by her older sister, Marilyn, who died of meningitis when Ruth was only 14 months old.
Long before she became known as the leader of the liberal wing of the Supreme Court, Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933 in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. Her father, Nathan, was a Jewish emigrant from Ukraine and her mother, Celia, was a first generation Polish American. As Ruth entered school, there were several other “Joans” in her class, so her Mom told the teacher to call her Ruth to avoid confusion. It stuck, but she always remained “Kiki” to her family, a nickname given to her by her older sister, Marilyn, who died of meningitis when Ruth was only 14 months old.
Ruth’s mother, Celia, was committed to ensuring a solid education for her daughter and she excelled, graduating from High School at the age of 15. Sadly, Celia lost her battle with cancer the day before that graduation ceremony as Ruth decided to attend Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg at the age of 17. She continued to excel as a member of Phi Betta Kappa, eventually graduating as the highest-ranking female in her class. Ruth and Martin were married a month after her graduation in 1954 and they relocated to Oklahoma, where she worked for the Social Security Administration. After being demoted when she became pregnant, Ruth decided to attend law school after her first child, Jane, was born in 1955.
She became the first woman to be on two Law Reviews (Harvard and Columbia Law Review) and graduated in 1959 tied for #1 in her class.
Ruth entered Harvard Law School in the Fall of 1956 as one of nine women in a class of 500. The Dean of the school famously invited all nine female students to his home for dinner and asked them “why they were attending Harvard taking the place of a man?” Can you imagine, lol? Ultimately, Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School when her husband took a job in NYC. She became the first woman to be on two Law Reviews (Harvard and Columbia Law Review) and graduated in 1959 tied for #1 in her class. Once again, Ruth faced a bias against women, finding difficulty in securing employment, until a former Law Professor of hers strong-armed a Judge to give her a clerkship, where she naturally excelled.
Seemingly at every turn, Ruth Bader Ginsburg faced the cultural inequities of being a woman, including her experience as a law professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963. She was paid less than her male counterparts because “her husband had a good-paying job”. At the time, she was one of only 20 college law professors in the country. Without seeking it, her destined path as a trailblazer for women’s rights took flight through the 1960’s & 70’s. Ruth founded a Law Journal exclusively focused on women, wrote text books on gender equality and established the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she became the General Counsel in 1973.
Ruth prepared briefs and she argued before the Supreme Court on multiple occasions, mainly focused on Equality topics. But not representing women’s rights exclusively.
Ruth prepared briefs and she argued before the Supreme Court on multiple occasions, mainly focused on equality topics. But not representing women’s rights exclusively. She won a 7-1 decision in Weinberger vs Wiesenfeld in 1975, where Ginsburg represented a widower denied survivor benefits under Social Security, which permitted widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children. She argued that the statute discriminated against male survivors of workers by denying them the same protection as their female counterparts.
In April of 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated to the US Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit. In her tenure there, she found consensus with noted conservative judges, Robert Bork, and Antonin Scalia. On June 22, 1993, she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton based largely on her reputation as a moderate consensus-builder. Her 96-3 Senate confirmation vote supports that perspective. Over the next 17 years, her reputation as a “voice” of the more liberal wing of the Court expanded, often writing the Dissenting or Majority Opinion on a ruling.
Her personal friendship with conservative icon, Judge Antonin Scalia, should serve as an example to all of us. Despite their clear ideological differences, they respected each other enough to find a fulfilling personal relationship that they both valued greatly.
Her body of work, in the form of her votes and written opinions on the Supreme Court, speaks for itself and is now left to the ages for judgement. But, I believe that the full measure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t rooted in her decisions. It is more about what she represents in the transitional times of her life, that began when women were not considered equal to men in the workplace. She jumped into the deep end of that pool by entering the field of law, which got even deeper once she was confirmed as a Judge. In our history, there have been a total of 112 Supreme Court Justices, 4 of which have been women.
Now more than ever, Judge Ginsburg’s tenure on The Court teaches us that we can have diverse opinions and disagree on issues, while remaining civil. This allows for the possibility of conversation and progress. Her personal friendship with conservative icon, Judge Antonin Scalia, should serve as an example to all of us. Despite their clear ideological differences, they respected each other enough to find a fulfilling personal relationship that they both valued greatly.
One of her best quotes is a profound statement on how to seek change: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” I cannot avoid the reality that such leadership is sadly lacking from both sides of the current political spectrum. But another Ginsburg quote also struck me: “There can be a happy world and there will be once again, when men (and women) create a strong bond towards one another, a bond unbreakable by a studied prejudice or passing circumstance.” Again, an admirable commentary on the current state of affairs with a unifying message, wouldn’t you agree? She wrote that in an essay in 1946 as an argument against complacency after World War II when she was 13 years old. Wow! Clearly, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was destined from a young age to change the world. With her closing argument on that case now made, the verdict is unanimous: Mission Accomplished, Notorious RBG!