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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pioneering US Supreme Court justice and champion of liberal values – obituary

In her eighties and in the age of Trump, ‘RBG’ became a cultural phenomenon and the heroine of progressive Americans

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her office at US District Court in Washington, 1993
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her office at US District Court in Washington, 1993 Credit: Doug Mills/AP Photo

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has died aged 87, was the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court; she was a moderate who moved to the Left as her country’s politics shifted Rightwards, her bird-like stature and quiet manner making her an unlikely cult hero.

Although she was vilified by detractors as anti-American, her campaigning work as a lawyer tackling gender discrimination and progressive pronouncements on the Court, many in dissent at the judgments of her conservative colleagues, meant that she was long the darling of US liberals.  

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2018): a cult hero Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

But it was not until her eighties that she became a true cultural phenomenon; her face, instantly recognisable behind giant spectacles, was plastered across birthday cards, beer cans and coffee mugs, tattooed on to fans’ bodies and painted on their finger nails. She was the subject of internet memes, two movies and an opera.

That transformation came in the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory in 2016, as shocked liberals, devastated by Hillary Clinton’s defenestration and mourning the loss of Barack Obama, searched for a new champion.

They found one in Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in every way the antithesis of the President: a tiny, softly spoken Jewish grandmother who stuck up for minorities and challenged injustice, she was modest, reserved and calm. Where Trump’s genius lay in instinct and bombast, hers was rooted in hard work and intelligence; learning was something to be prized not dismissed or mocked.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (front, second right), posing for an official group portrait in the East Conference Room of the Supreme Court in Washington, November 30 2018 Credit:  JIM LO SCALZO/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Just about the only thing the pair had in common was their home town of New York: her birthplace in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is about 10 miles as the crow flies from the President’s boyhood neighbourhood of Jamaica Estates, Queens.

She was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Among her most famous findings were her majority opinion in United States v Virginia (1996), which declared the male-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute to be unconstitutional, and her dissent in Ledbetter v Goodyear (2007), which ultimately led to an expansion in equal pay legislation.

The nickname “Notorious R.B.G.”, a play on the moniker adopted by the rapper “Notorious B.I.G.”, took off following a particularly scathing dissenting opinion in Shelby County v Holder (2013), which struck out an aspect of the civil rights-era Voting Rights Act.

Born on the social media platform Tumblr, the joke gained widespread attention when the comedian Kate McKinnon began a recurring turn as the judge-turned-hip hop gangsta on the popular television show Saturday Night Live.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Democrat Senators Daniel Patrick Moynihan Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, circa 1993 Credit: Marcy Nighswander/AP Photo

She was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15 1933 in the working-class New York neighbourhood of Flatbush. Her father Nathan was a first-generation immigrant from Odessa, (now in Ukraine but then part of the Russian Empire), who sold furs; her mother, Celia (née Amster), was born a few months after her own parents had arrived in the US from Austria.

Joan Ruth Bader at two years old in 1935 Credit: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States via AP

Both parents were Jewish and both resentful at being deprived of a college education, for reasons of religion and gender respectively (Jews were barred from higher education in Odessa, while Celia’s parents would only pay for her brother to attend university).

Celia in particular was determined that Ruth would not experience the same fate, instilling in her daughter the lesson: “Be a lady – and be independent.”

Her mother taught her early on to ‘be a lady – and be independent’: in 1977 on a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in Italy Credit: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States via AP

After the death to meningitis of her oldest child, Marylin, at the age of six, Celia Bader made it her life’s work to see that little Kiki, as Ruth was known to the family, excelled at high school, in the hope that she would go on to become a history teacher. (It was at Celia’s suggestion that teachers began referring to Ruth by her middle name, wanting her to stand out from a number of other “Joans” in her elementary class.)

Having developed cervical cancer when Ruth was in her teens, Celia Bader died the day before her daughter’s high school graduation.

It was then that the hitherto observant Ruth parted ways with her faith: under Jewish tradition, only men can form a quorum of mourners, and the exclusion from her mother’s minyan, or prayer service, rankled.

Ruth had fulfilled her mother’s ambitions by scoring top grades at high school, and she enrolled at Cornell University in upstate New York, at a time when girls were still a rarity on campus. She met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg, known as Marty, within months while still 17. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, her husband Martin and their daughter Jane in 1958 Credit: Supreme Court of the United States via AP

She often said she was only able to become a trailblazer because the gregarious, light-hearted Marty was one already – a man comfortable putting his wife’s career aspirations ahead of his own and sharing family duties in an era when such things were rare. He was the family cook (she was barred from the kitchen) and, their children have suggested, the more overtly caring parent.

In the 2018 biographical documentary RBG, she described his view as: “A woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s,” and elsewhere she has remarked: “I became a lawyer because Marty supported that choice unreservedly. Meeting Marty was by the far the most important thing that ever happened to me.”

When President Clinton was seeking a nominee for the Supreme Court in 1993, it was Marty, rather than Bader Ginsburg, who lobbied for her to get the job, ringing round his contacts.

Having married straight out of college, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was inspired by the McCarthy hearings to enter the law, seeing it as a vehicle for societal change. She enrolled at Harvard Law School, where Marty had begun the previous year, one of nine women in a class of around 500.

By now, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also a mother. Juggling classes with child-rearing kept her sane, she recalled, allowing her to concentrate fully on her work during the day when her daughter was with a child minder, while giving her mind a break in the afternoon and evening when she took over caring duties.

Life became more complicated, however, when Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer during his third year. Ruth attended both sets of classes, arranged for his friends to provide him with lecture notes so he could keep up with assignments and still finished near the top of her class, having survived on two hours’ sleep a night.

Her struggles during Marty’s illness, and the couple’s first forays in tackling gender discrimination, were captured in the 2018 film On The Basis of Sex, starring the British actress Felicity Jones.

Marty made a full recovery, and became one of the country’s leading tax attorneys.

President Obama hugs Ruth Bader Ginsburg before giving his State of the Union address, January 2014 Credit: MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Unwilling to be apart from him because of to his health concerns, Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia University in Manhattan, graduating joint top of her class. Yet she could find no law firm willing to take on a woman.

She turned to academia, going on to teach law at Rutgers (which justified paying her less than her male colleagues on the grounds that her husband had a “good job”). She hid her pregnancy with her second child under baggy clothes and gave birth during the summer break.

Soon the emerging women’s movement began to capture her attention. After a number of female students implored her to take on the subject, in the early 1970s she began teaching a ground-breaking course on gender and the law.

It was her husband, in his work as a tax lawyer, who uncovered the case which launched her crusade to strip the law of inequality. An unmarried Colorado salesman, Charles Moritz, had been refused a tax deduction for nursing care for his elderly mother because he was a son rather than a daughter.

The couple challenged the ruling, arguing that the tax authorities were in breach of the constitution by assuming that only women were caregivers. This led to an invitation from the American Civil Liberties Union, under whose auspices in 1972 Ruth Bader Ginsburg led the Women’s Rights Project, a campaign to challenge the many laws at both federal and state level which allowed discrimination on the grounds of gender.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband Martin, a man comfortable putting his wife’s career aspirations ahead of his own and sharing family duties in an era when such things were rare Credit: Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States via AP

In two years, the Project tackled more than 300 laws; in Frontiero v Richardson (1973), the first case Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, she spoke on behalf of Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the US Air Force who was denied a housing allowance available to married men because she had a husband and not a wife.

Modelling her strategy on that set by the Civil Rights activist and lawyer Thurgood Marshall, she saw the legal battle to achieve equality for women as a series of steps, often arguing cases on behalf of men, which had the broader effect of undermining the legitimacy of discrimination on the grounds of gender.

Her five victorious Supreme Court cases (out of six) included a challenge to different male and female legal drinking ages; overturned a law which made jury service in Louisiana voluntary for women (which, she argued, put female defendants at a disadvantage); and won equal social security benefits for widowers.

At the time, she felt, the all-male Court was ignorant of the scale of the discrimination experienced by American women. “I did think of myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days because the justices didn’t think discrimination existed,” she remarked in RBG.

In 1980 she was nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia by President Jimmy Carter, part of his drive to increase the number of women and minorities on the federal circuit. She gained a reputation as a moderate with a desire to seek consensus and an ability to forge genuine friendships with conservative judges.

So benign was Ruth Bader Ginsburg considered that many in the feminist movement opposed her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1993 on the grounds that she was not radical enough. Her confirmation was approved in the Senate by 96 votes to three.

Bill Clinton has said she was not his first choice for the role, but after calling her in for an interview at the White House, he recalled: “All of a sudden I wasn’t the president interviewing her for the Supreme Court, we were two people having an honest discussion about what’s the best way in the moment and for the future to make law. Within 15 minutes I decided I was going to name her.”

Once on the Court, Bader Ginsburg seemed to find common ground with moderates, including the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan nominee.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2002  Credit: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Rankings produced by Cornell Law School and Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1993 put her in fourth place of the nine judges on a scale of liberal to conservative ideology.

Over time, as the centre of gravity on the court shifted to the Right with appointments made under President George W Bush, she moved further towards the liberal wing.

But despite the increasing number and forcefulness of her dissents during the Bush and later Trump eras, she retained an ability to maintain friendships with those she disagreed with ideologically. This included an unlikely yet close affinity with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative who argued for a literal interpretation of the constitution.

They dined and attended the opera together and she cracked a rare smile at his jokes – their friendship was even the subject of an opera by Derrick Wang.

Scalia once said of her: “She is a very nice person. What’s not to like? Except for her views on the law.”

Bader Ginsburg often suggested that the ideal number of women justices on the nine-strong Supreme Court would be nine. “People are shocked,” she once said of the response to her remarks. “But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Bader Ginsburg was forced to apologise for bad-mouthing Donald Trump, at the time the presumptive Republican nominee, joking she might move to New Zealand should he win. Her mistake, along with the entire Washington liberal elite, had been to underestimate Mr Trump’s appeal.

The misstep came at a time when she was under intense pressure to retire, a move which would have allowed Barack Obama to appoint her successor, maintaining a liberal seat on the Court.

Concern about the tiny, increasingly frail octogenarian’s ability to survive the Trump years was exacerbated by a series of health scares; she survived two bouts of cancer and a number of more minor ailments, each fall or hospitalisation sending liberal America into paroxysms of anxiety.

She herself insisted she remained physically up to the task, never missing a day at the Court during her cancer treatment. Images of her working out in the Supreme Court gym – she could do 20 push-ups well into her 80s – became an internet sensation.

While Bader Ginsburg said she still had work she wished to complete at the Court, others saw her refusal to retire as a sign of her need to keep busy following Marty’s death in 2010.

She maintained her habit of working until 4am, often returning to her study after a night out with her family or trip to the opera.

Her night owl ways, which sustained her throughout her law career, finally tripped her up in 2015 when she fell asleep at the State of the Union address, again to the delight of the internet.

Opera was Bader Ginsburg’s passion – she sometimes lamented that she lacked the talent to sing opera, although she had played the piano and cello as a girl – with Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini among her favourites.

She appeared in onstage cameos several times, including once with Scalia in Ariadne auf Naxos.

Among her many awards and honours were the LBJ Foundation’s Liberty and Justice for All Award, the World Peace and Liberty Award and the Berggruen Award for Philosophy and Culture, as well as honorary law degrees from Willamette University, Princeton and Harvard, and induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame,

She is survived by her daughter, Jane Ginsburg, a law professor, son James Ginsburg, the president of a classical music recording company, and four grandchildren.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, born March 15 1933, died September 18 2020