US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion, has died aged 87.
The court’s second female justice died from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, though she made few concessions to age and recurrent health problems in her latter years.
In her final years on the court, she was the unquestioned leader of the liberal justices, as outspoken in dissent as she was cautious in earlier years. During her latter period she also became a social media icon as the Notorious RBG – a name coined by a law student who admired her dissent in a case cutting back on a key civil rights law. The justice was at first taken aback. There was nothing “notorious” about this woman of rectitude who wore a variety of lace collars on the bench and often appeared in public in elegant gloves.
But when her law clerks and grandchildren explained the connection to another Brooklynite, the rapper The Notorious BIG, her scepticism turned to delight: “In the word the current generation uses, it’s awesome,” she said in 2016, shortly before she turned 83.
Her stature on the court and the death of her husband in 2010 probably contributed to Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench beyond the goal she initially set for herself, to match justice Louis Brandeis’s 22 years on the court and his retirement at the age of 82. She had special affection for Mr Brandeis, the first Jew named to the high court. She was the court’s second woman and its sixth Jewish justice, but in time was joined by two other Jews, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and two other women, Ms Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
Both developments were perhaps unthinkable when Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959 and faced the triple hurdle of looking for work as a woman, a mother and a Jew. Forty years later, she noted that religion had become irrelevant in the selection of high-court justices and that gender was heading in the same direction. She was nominated for her position on America’s highest court by former president Bill Clinton in 1993. Her time as a justice was marked by triumphs for equality for women, as in her opinion for the court ordering the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding.
There were setbacks, too. She dissented forcefully from the court’s decision in 2007 to uphold a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.
The “alarming” ruling, Ginsburg said, “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court – and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives”.
The justice once said she had not entered the law as a champion of equal rights. “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other,” she wrote. “I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyse problems clearly.”
Besides civil rights, Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use. During her tenure, the court declared it unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and killers younger than 18.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933, the second daughter in a middle-class family. Her older sister, who gave her the lifelong nickname “Kiki”, died aged six, so Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section as an only child. Her dream, she had said, was to be an opera singer.
Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the night before Ginsburg, then 17, was to graduate from high school. Celia Bader never attended college but worked as a bookkeeper. In a TV documentary about Jewish Americans, Ginsburg said: “What’s the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s Garment District and a US supreme court justice? One generation.”
She first gained fame as a litigator for the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. She had worked on the legal team that persuaded the high court to rule for the first time ever in 1970 that a state had violated the US constitution by denying women equal treatment.
Appearing at a law school forum in 2008, she noted with relief that there was no retirement age for US judges.
“We hold our offices during good behaviour,” Ginsburg said, citing language from the US constitution. “So all of my colleagues behave very well.”
She married her husband, Martin, in 1954, the year she graduated from Cornell University. She attended Harvard University’s law school but transferred to Columbia University when her husband took a law job in New York.
Ginsburg had graduated at the top of her Columbia Law School class but could not find a law firm willing to hire her. She later said she’d had more than her share of “mazel” – the Hebrew word for luck – to help her along in life.
“Suppose there had been a Wall Street firm interested in hiring me? What would I be today?” she said in 2007. “A retired partner.”
Martin Ginsburg went on to become a prominent tax attorney and law professor at Georgetown University.
Ginsburg was a law professor at Rutgers University and Columbia, then later a federal appeals court judge for 13 years. Theirs was an equal partnership in which Martin was the undisputed master of the kitchen, often baking cakes for the justices’ birthdays.
In 1999, Ginsburg had surgery for colon cancer and received radiation and chemotherapy. She had surgery again in 2009 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and in December 2018 to remove cancerous growths on her left lung. In 2019, doctors treated Ginsburg with radiation for a tumour on her pancreas. She maintained an active schedule even during the three weeks of radiation therapy.
When she revealed a recurrence of her cancer in July 2020, this time with lesions on her liver that were treated with chemotherapy every two weeks, Ginsburg said she remained “fully able” to continue as a justice.
She is survived by two children, Jane and James, and several grandchildren.
Ginsburg’s determination was perhaps most evident on the day the court met for the final time in June 2010.
Her husband had died a day earlier, and her children told her their father would want her to go to work. The justices filed into the courtroom that Monday, and Ginsburg was there.