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The Life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Iconic Supreme Court Justice

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

RBG: More Than a Supreme Court Justice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was best known for her service as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court for 28 years (August 10, 1993, until her death on September 18, 2020).

The Supreme Court was only the tip of the iceberg for Ginsburg. Many don't know, for example, that she learned Swedish so that she could co-author a book on Swedish legal procedure. She was the first tenured law professor at Columbia Law School and argued and won many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court pertaining to gender equality.

My family had grave doubts about my going to law school, because women lawyers were not welcomed at the time.

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A Feisty Girl From Brooklyn

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York.

When she entered kindergarten she found herself in a school with several other girls named Joan. To avoid confusion, her teacher started calling her Ruth—and the name stuck.

Upon graduating from high school, Ginsburg attended Cornell University where she majored in government and graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1954.

Soon after graduation she married her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and they moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. She took a job with the Social Security Administration where she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child. This experience helped inspire Ginsburg's advocacy for gender equality.

Martin and Ruth Ginsburg in Oklahoma

Martin and Ruth Ginsburg in Oklahoma

On to Law School

In 1956 Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in a class of 500. Women were not very welcome there. One of the law professors even asked "Why are you here taking the place of a man?"

During her first year at Harvard her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer and Ginsburg assumed a dual role of caretaker and law student.

She later transferred to Columbia Law where she earned her degree in 1959, graduating at the top of her class.

Cases RBG Argued Before the Supreme Court

CaseFacts of the CaseResult

Duren v. Missouri

Billy Duren was convicted of murder in Jackson County by an all male jury. He argued iolated his Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment right to a trial by a jury chosen from a fair cross section of the community. Jackson County allowed women to be exempted from jury duty upon request but did not allow the same for men. The question before the court was Does Jackson County’s practice of automatically exempting women from jury duty on request violate the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendment guarantees to a trial by a jury chosen from a fair cross section of the community?

Win. The Supreme Court held that that Jackson County’s jury selection process violated his constitutional rights.

California v. Goldfarb

Leon Goldfarb was a widower who applied for survivor's benefits under the Social Security Act and was denied since he was not receiving at least of of his support from his wife at the time of her death. This same rule did not apply to widows. Goldfarb challenged this statute under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

Win. The Supreme Court held that Goldfarb's 5th Amerndment Rights were violated.

Edwards v. Healy

Louisiana statute that bars women from serving on juries unless they file a written declaration of their desire to serve

Remanded to lower court

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld

After his wife died Wiesenfeld applied for social security benefits for himself and his son, and was told that his son could receive them but that he could not. Under the law at the time benefits for a deceased wife and mother were only available to the children. Wiesenfeld sued for benefits arguing that denial of benefits was gender discrimination.

Won. The Supreme Court held that the purpose of the social security benefits for the surviving spouse and children is to enable the surviving spouse to properly care for the children, regardless of the gender of the parent.

Kahn v. Shevin

Florida has granted a $500 property tax exemption for widows but no similar exemption for widowers. After being denied the property tax exemption, Mel Kahn sued claiming the statute was gender-based and therefore violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lost. The Supreme Court held that single women face significantly more hardship in the job market than single men, and the disparity is particularly true for surviving spouses.

Frontiero v. Richardson

Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, was denied a dependent's allowance for her husband. Federal law provided that the wives of members of the military automatically became dependents while husbands of female members of the military, however, were not accepted as dependents unless they were dependent on their wives for over one-half of their support. Frontiero sued claiming the law was a violation of the 5th Amendment's due process clause.

The Court held that the statute in question clearly commanded "dissimilar treatment for men and women who are similarly situated.

She Faced Gender Discrimination

At the start of her legal career, Ginsburg experienced problems finding employment due to her gender.

It took special pressure from her Columbia professor Gerry Gunther, who told Judge Edmund Palmieri that if he did not give Ginsburg a chance at a clerkship he would never recommend another Columbia graduate to him again. “If you don’t give her a chance, I will never recommend another Columbia clerk to you,” Gunther said.

Ginsburg not only got the job, she succeeded. She ended up working for Judge Palmieri for two years.

U.S. Supreme Court

U.S. Supreme Court

Crusader for Gender Equality

After her clerkship, Ginsburg joined the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. While there, she learned Swedish and co-authored a book on Swedish legal procedures.

She later joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where she assisted in gender discrimination cases.

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Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court and won five. The most famous is arguably Weinberger vs Wiesenfeld, where Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower, was denied Social Security benefits because he was a man. Ginsburg argued that the denial of benefits to Wiesenfeld was a violation of his 5th amendment due process rights, and she won an 8-1 decision.


Rising to the Bench

In 1980, Ginsburg was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. She served on the court for 13 years until she was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to replace retiring Justice Byron White on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Upon ascending to the bench, Ginsburg became just the second woman and first Jewish woman ever to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Since joining the U.S. Supreme Court, she has written opinions for several important cases. These include:

United States v. Virginia

The Virginia Military Institute had a male-only admissions policy. They argued that women were not suited for the university's training program. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the policy with Ruth Bader Ginsburg writing the majority opinion. Ginsburg wrote, "generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description."

Bush v. Gore

The state of Florida ordered a manual hand recount of 9000 presidential election ballots in Miami-Dade County. It also ordered that every county in Florida immediately begin manually recounting all "under-votes" (ballots which did not indicate a vote for president). George Bush petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the stay and eventually ruled that Florida's scheme for counting the ballots was unconstitutional and that no recount could be completed in the time allotted. This ruling effectively handed the election to George W. Bush.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, saying "In sum, the Court’s conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States. I dissent."

Ginsburg's use of the phrase "I dissent" to conclude the opinion was a departure from the historical norm of concluding an opinion with "I respectfully dissent."

Obergefell v. Hodges

Groups of same-sex couples sued their relevant state agencies in Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee to challenge the constitutionality of those states' bans on same-sex marriage or refusal to recognize legal same-sex marriages that occurred in jurisdictions that provided for such marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down all state laws preventing same-sex marriage as unconstitutional.

Ginsburg wrote for the majority saying, “Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female.... would that be a choice that state should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?”

"You can't have it all, all at once. Who—man or woman—has it all, all at once? Over my lifespan I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time things were rough."

— Ruth Bader Ginsburg


George Johnson (author) from San Antonio, TX on January 13, 2019:

That's amazing you know her in the UK. Huge impact.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 13, 2019:

Even in the UK we have heard of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That just goes to show what an impact her career has had.

George Johnson (author) from San Antonio, TX on January 12, 2019:

You're welcome. Thanks for the nice words. When I started researching I found her career much more interesting than I thought.

Howard Schneider from Parsippany, New Jersey on January 12, 2019:

Wonderful Hub, George. Justice Ginsburg is truly a pioneer and icon of the Supreme Court. Thank you for filling in her bio with this Hub for me.

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