‘World-changing power’: RBG’s life should inspire everyone to ‘fight for her legacy’

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life was a study in smashing glass ceilings, and her work benefits all American women. The furor over who will nominate the next Supreme Court Justice has already begun, while her seat on the bench is still warm.

But this giant of jurisprudence deserves a moment of silence away from the fray to appreciate all she achieved. And perhaps to think about how we can all follow her lead in fighting adversity.

Here are a few highlights from Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s storied career.

Born in Brooklyn

A street in Brooklyn

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The woman who would become the Notorious RBG was born Joan Ruth Bader in March 1933 to Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. She went to public school and earned a full scholarship to Cornell University, where she met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg.

“What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me,” the judge told NPR, “was that he cared that I had a brain.”

Law school

Facade of Harvard

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After the Ginsburgs were married, Ruth could only get a job as a typist despite her degree and qualifications. When she and Marty both entered Harvard Law School, Ruth and the eight other women who had been admitted in 1956 were asked by the dean to justify, “occupying seats that would otherwise be filled by men.”

It was this type of discrimination, observes the  ACLU, that drove Ruth Bader Ginsburg to focus on women’s rights.

While at Harvard, she cared for Martin while he went through treatment for cancer, watched over their daughter, and typed up Marty’s classwork before preparing her own, all while maintaining high marks. Martin graduated and got a job in New York, and Ruth transferred to Columbia where she graduated tied at the top of her class.

But none of this was enough to get her a job; no law firm or judge was prepared to hire a woman, let alone one who had a child.

First gig

RBG Best Moments

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg finally got her first job as a law professional clerking for Judge Edmund Palmieri.

Professor Gerald Gunther, who often sent Palmieri his best students, offered the Judge a choice: hire Ginsburg with the guarantee that he would provide a replacement if it didn’t work out — or turn her away and Gunther would never send him another clerk.

In the end, Judge Palmieri was so impressed that he extended Ruth Ginsburg’s clerkship for an extra year.

The case that started it all

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RBG’s first big case took on a tax law that denied a man, Charles Moritz, a tax deduction for the caretaking of his elderly mother. The IRS allowed this to be claimed only by women. Moritz was single, so there was no one who could have claimed the deduction. Martin and Ruth Ginsburg worked on the case together: Martin worked from his expertise as a tax lawyer, while Ruth took on the constitutional angle.

Rather than ask for the law to be struck down, Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued for it to be equally applied to men and women. And she won her case.

Years later, Martin Ginsburg told NPR that the US Government petitioned the Supreme Court over the “cloud of unconstitutionality” that the ruling cast over “literally hundreds” of federal statutes — which were listed.

This list became “the statutes that my wife then litigated,” Martin said, “to overturn over the next decade.”

The Ruth Bader Ginsburg strategy

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband surrounded by people

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Ginsburg saw how Social Security benefits were unevenly distributed between women and men, and often argued this on behalf of male plaintiffs. Showing how the inequities could also harm men was a winning strategy before male, establishment-oriented judges.

In one case, for instance, she represented a man whose wife’s job had been the main income for their family. When his wife died, the widower was unable to claim Social Security benefits because only women were entitled to survivor’s benefits.

Ginsburg points to “the words of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause — ‘nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws’. Well that word, ‘any person,’ covers women as well as men.”

Arguing in front of the supreme court

US Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg

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Beginning in 1971, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued six cases in front of the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and won five of them. She confessed to being, “terribly nervous,” for her first SCOTUS argument, but her nerves did not show.

Ginsburg delivered her entire argument from memory, never needing to check her notes even to cite case law. “Two minutes into my argument, the fear dissolved. Suddenly, I realized that here before me were the nine leading jurists of America, a captive audience. I felt a surge of power that carried me through.”

“It was brilliant,” Brenda Feigen, then co-director for the Women’s Rights Project, remembers. “Not a single Justice asked a single question; I think they were mesmerized by her.”

The rising star

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Throughout their lives together, Ruth’s husband Martin was Ruth’s strongest supporter. Perhaps it is no surprise that a woman who championed women’s rights would have a partner who was not threatened by her role as the legal star of the Ginsburg couple.

President Jimmy Carter named Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit in 1980, where she proved to be a centrist liberal.

When President Bill Clinton was deciding who to nominate to the Supreme Court, Martin lobbied for Ruth to be considered. In the end, Ruth won Bill Clinton’s support and the Senate’s; they voted 96-3 to confirm her as the nation’s second woman to sit on the US Supreme Court.

When I’m sometimes asked ‘When will there be enough (women on the Supreme Court)?’ and my answer is: ‘When there are nine.’ People are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that. - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The majority opinion

Demonstrators for women's rights

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote her first majority opinion in 1996, after the 7-1 Supreme Court decision that ruled the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) could not remain all-male. Later in life, Ginsburg would talk about confiding to the court’s other woman Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, that she was nervous about writing the opinion. But, once again, she had no reason to worry.

“Reliance on overbroad generalizations,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “will not suffice to deny opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” While it was true that most women would not want to apply themselves to the rigors of VMI, frankly, neither would most men.

It wasn’t that Ginsburg viewed women and men as the same. “Inherent differences between men and women,” she continued, “remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.”

The dissent

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As the balance of the Supreme Court shifted toward conservative, Justice Ginsburg often wrote the dissent in cases where she felt civil rights, and particularly women’s rights, were being denied.

And Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not mince words.

After SCOTUS voted to remove a key provision of the Voting Rights Act based on an argument that the law was no longer needed, Ginsburg wrote that was, “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Justice Ginsburg felt that dissenting opinions could be very powerful in future arguments about a law. In particular, a dissent might be particularly powerful in a case decided by a narrow margin. A close vote by the court signals that the case may have a different outcome if the law is revisited.

Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow. - Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The unlikely friendship

Justice Scalia smiling

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Justice Ginsburg did not confine herself to friendship with only like-minded people. Her close friendship with conservative Justice Scalia is a beacon to Americans searching harder and harder to find common ground.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was known for her love of the arts, particularly opera. She was a guest on the New York Metropolitan Opera’s radio broadcasts and appeared in a speaking role in a Washington National Opera production of La Fille du Régiment (Daughter of the Regiment). Love of opera was something she shared with Justice Scalia, and their friendship was memorialized in a modern comic opera by Derrick Wang, which opens with Scalia’s “rage aria.”

Onward

Supreme Court RBG memorial

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The fight over who should have the right of nominating the next Supreme Court Justice, and when that should occur, is heating up. And while people will surely speak of, “replacing Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” it will not be as simple as putting a new occupant in her seat.

“She has been absolutely consistent and reliable as a voice for freedom and opportunity for everyone,” Joe Biden said in memoriam. “Her opinions and her dissent are going to continue to shape basis for our law for a generation.”

The 14th Amendment can call us all to work, until no one can “deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.”

It will take all of us to fill the void left behind by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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