There could hardly have been a more political death. Few people generate such a storm of controversy on their demise as the Democrat lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice for the last 27 years and the longest serving Jewish justice.
Considered a “pop culture feminist icon” whose work is credited with having made significant legal advances for women under the law, the dynamic liberaliser died in office aged 87, less than two months before the US presidential election. Her death unleashed a stand-off between the Democrats and Republicans over her replacement. Ginsburg had dictated her “fervent” final wish to her Harvard lawyer granddaughter Clara Spera — who called her “Bubbie” — that she should not be replaced until after “a new president is installed.”
But that wish was overturned by the Republican decision to appoint its Christian conservative nominee, Amy Corney Barnett, who was confirmed one week before the presidential election. Democrats fear new rulings could overturn Ginsburg’s reforms.
Hailed as a consensus builderwho tried to keep politics out of the Supreme Court, Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions sometimes made her a forceful opponent. Her cases were often viewed by American popular culture as reflecting a liberal view of the law. Ginsburg singled out one pivotal moment of change during her career — the 2015 ruling that legalised same sex marriage in all the US states.
The moderate woman nominated by former US President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. She was the second woman to serve on the US Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor, and its first Jewish female justice.
Gender equality and women’s rights had already distinguished her career as an advocate, academic and appeals court judge. A darling of the left for her dogged embrace of humanitarian values, abortion and women’ rights, she relentlessly pursued the point that discrimination violated the American constitution.
Ginsburg discussed her views on abortion in a 2009 New York Times interview, arguing that “the government has no business making that choice for a woman.” She was equally forceful on strip searching, influencing her colleagues on a case involving a school having ordered a 13 year old girl to strip so female officials could search her for drugs. The court ruled that the search violated the Fourth Amendment.
Ginsburg cut a powerful, if diminutive figure. With her severe appearance, heavy glasses and scraped back hair, she looked the judge personified in her 2000 commissioned portrait, enrobed with one of her many white lace jabots around her neck.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, the younger daughter of Jewish parents Celia née Amster and Nathan Bader, a furrier, both with East European roots. Her childhood was marked with tragedy. Her older sister Marylin died of meningitis, aged six, and her mother, who had nurtured her education, died of cancer the day before she graduated from High School.
Brought up within the Conservative Jewish tradition, she studied Hebrew, attending Jewish summer camps and becoming a camp counsellor. But, forbidden to join a minyan to say Kaddish on her mother’s death, she moved away from strict observance, while retaining a strong Jewish identity. She and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt published an essay, The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover, on five key women — “ who had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world.” Her chambers were decorated with an artwork reflecting the Hebrew phrase from Deuteronomy – Zedek, zedek, tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.
Despite a brilliant academic career, she was dogged by prejudice, even from so-called “liberals.” She was asked how she could justify taking a qualified man’s place, while the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurt refused her a clerkship because she was a woman. Then there were offers of advantages in exchange for sex. Throughout her early career she faced the kind of gender discrimination that prompted her ardent feminism and her later support for the Me #Too movement.
After graduating with a BA in government at Cornell University, she married fellow law student and future tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg in 1954 and became a mother before starting Harvard law school two years later. After her husband’s cancer diagnosis she had a tough time balancing their careers, bringing up their first child, and working on the Harvard Law Review. The couple celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary on June 23, 2010.
As a professor at Rutgers, New Jersey and later Columbia she was one of the few women teaching civil procedure. She undertook voluntary advocacy work for the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s, and in 1972 she co-founded the ACLU’S Women’s Rights Project, becoming its general counsel a year later.
From 1980 she became a Columbia circuit judge of the US Court of Appeals, frequently winning cases on behalf of equality for women, but open-minded enough to recognise that in some of her adjudications, men could be losers, too. Her fellow travellers were not all like-minded liberals. She numbered conservatives like Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia, among her personal friends. Scalia, an opera buff as she was, praised her advocacy skills.
But it was not all law and order for Ginsburg. From 2003-16 she appeared in several non-speaking operatic roles, sometimes writing the lines herself. In July, 2016, she gave three interviews criticising the then presidential nominee Donald Trump — even joking that she might move to New Zealand if he won. She later apologised for her “ill advised” remarks. In October, 2016 Simon and Schuster published her first book My Own Words.
Despite five bouts of cancer from 1990, Ginsburg never missed a day on the bench, although she was considerably weakened by the invasive treatment. Last May she insisted that she “would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam.” She died from complications of pancreatic cancer on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Thousands gathered in front of the Supreme Court placing flowers, candles and messages. She was the first Jew and the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol.
She is survived by her daughter Jane C Ginsburg, a professor of Columbia Law school, her son James Steven Ginsburg, founder president of classical music recording company, Cedille Records, and four grandchildren. Martin Ginsburg predeceased her in 2010.
Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg: born March 15, 1933. Died September 18, 2020