When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away September 18, 2020, from complications with pancreatic cancer, she had attained the status of pop culture icon. Those who know her as “The Notorious RGB” may not fully recognize that every American, regardless of political affiliation, has benefited in some way from her work both on and off the bench. Her many legacy highlights include a passion for equality for all, her understanding of the interrelation between life and law, and her lasting friendship with late Justice Anton Scalia.
“I dissent” is a phrase often associated with Ginsburg. While many are aware that “I dissent” is the phrase she famously used to conclude her dissenting opinion in Bush v. Gore, it is also an apt description of Ginsburg’s approach to life. Over the course of her eighty-seven years, Ginsburg graciously scrutinized and challenged the status quo.
Her fight for equality began early, during her school years and followed her through her time as a practicing attorney and ultimately, Justice of the Supreme Court. Ginsburg did not just fight for gender equality, but argued for, authored, and was otherwise involved in rulings in favor of equality based on race, sexual orientation, immigration status, and disability status. Importantly, Ginsburg did not favor one characteristic over another. She fought not only for women’s equality, but for men’s equality as well. She believed that individuals should have the opportunity to achieve their goals, regardless of their gender. Ginsburg was also a strong proponent of marriage equality and is said to be the first Supreme Court justice to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Before being appointed to the United States Supreme Court, Ginsburg made a name for herself as a scholar and an advocate. In 1954, she graduated at the top of her undergraduate class from Cornell University. In 1956, she enrolled in Harvard Law School, one of just nine women out of a class of 500. She went on to become the first female member of the Harvard Law Review. Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year to keep her family together as her husband had just accepted a job in New York. There, she joined the Columbia Law Review, making her the first person to write for both Harvard and Columbia. In 1959, Ginsburg graduated from Columbia, again at the top of her class.
Despite her many academic accomplishments, Ginsburg struggled to find work after graduation. At that time, top New York firms were not eager to hire a female, even one as qualified as Ginsburg. She eventually became a clerk for the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, then went on to become the second female faculty member at Rutgers Law School, where she fought for equal pay across both genders. After leaving Rutgers, Ginsburg became the first tenured female at Columbia Law School.
In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and became general counsel for the organization one year later. While there, she argued six cases in front of the United States Supreme Court, winning five of them. Most notable was the landmark case Reed v. Reed, which extended the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to women and held that all citizens, regardless of gender, are equal under the law.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, and she was confirmed later that year. One of her colleagues on the DC Circuit bench was soon-to-be Justice Anton Scalia. The friendship they formed and maintained throughout their tenure on the bench was well known, as discussed below, and inspiring.
When President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993, she garnered mass support from both sides of the aisle and Congress confirmed her with an astounding 96-3 vote. When Ginsburg took the bench she was the first Jewish woman, and just the second woman in general, to do so. In fact, from 2006-2009, Ginsburg was the only female on the Court.
Ginsburg was aware of the unique perspective she brought to the Court as a female and was able to influence the other justices based on her experiences. For instance, in Stafford Unified School District v. Redding, she did not write the majority, but was able to successfully persuade her colleagues to hold that requiring a thirteen-year-old female student to strip to her bra and underwear to be searched was unconstitutional. In reflecting on her influence, Ginsburg believed that her colleagues could never fully appreciate the issue because her colleagues had never been young women.
Ginsburg’s work towards equality for all is carried forward by attorneys across the nation. At GRGB, we fight for individual rights in all areas of the law. From criminal charges to civil rights litigation, the attorneys at our firm follow Ginsburg’s never-ending search for equality.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn today from Ginsburg’s legacy is rooted in her friendship with the late Justice Scalia. It is no secret that Ginsburg and Scalia fell on opposite ends of the political spectrum and that they battled each other fiercely while on the bench. Despite their differences, the two were able to forge one of the most famous friendships to come from the bench. One of their favorite activities was to attend the opera together. In fact, the two were such opera aficionados that they appeared together with non-speaking roles in one production and their friendship was the subject of its own opera. Scalia/Ginsburg opened in 2015 and followed the intricacies of their relationship both on and off the bench. Their friendship is an example we all need right now. With the United States more polarized than ever, it is important to remember that those who are different than you in belief, ideology, race, religion, gender, etc. are not inherently bad. We can learn from and should celebrate our differences. It is possible to get along with those you disagree with, but everyone must approach such situations with mutual respect. Ginsburg and Scalia are a fine demonstration of the good that can come from differences.
It is on us to further Ginsburg’s legacy: to fight for equality for all, to appreciate the interplay between life and law, and to extend friendship to those around us. Ginsburg spent her life fighting to make sure that each and every American maintained certain rights, and the best way to honor her is to exercise those rights. Right now, one of the most important rights you can exercise is your right to vote. I am lucky enough to work at a firm that encourages its employees to work the polls, to volunteer legal services, and to take time out of their day to vote. On November 3, 2020, I will be volunteering with Election Protection, a nonpartisan group dedicated to maintaining integrity in the nation-wide election, and many of my colleagues at GRGB will be volunteering in different aspects.