Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the legal trailblazer turned cultural icon and the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court, died on Friday, September 18, 2020 at the age of 87. Throughout the course of her long career as an attorney, advocate, and Supreme Court Justice, Justice Ginsburg fought for gender equality and worked to ensure that all Americans are treated with equal justice under the law.
Born in 1933 to a working-class family in Brooklyn, New York, much of Justice Ginsburg’s early life was shaped by her mother’s advice, “Always be prepared to be self-standing, to fend for yourself.” Justice Ginsburg attended college at Cornell University on a full scholarship and graduated first in her class. In 1956, she entered Harvard Law School as one of only eight women in a class of 500.
Justice Ginsburg continued to excel as she balanced the demands of being a law student and a new mother. She became the first female member of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, and after transferring to Columbia University Law School to complete her degree, was selected to serve on the Columbia Law Review as well. Despite once again graduating first in her class, Ginsburg recounted that it was difficult for her to find work as a lawyer. After being rejected from all 12 law firms at which she interviewed, a Columbia professor recommended her for a clerkship with a judge at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. She clerked there for two years before being hired as an assistant professor at Rutgers School of Law in 1963.
Work as an Attorney
In the 1970s, Ginsburg was promoted to full professor, joined the faculty at Columbia Law School, gave birth to her second child, and co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. In this position, she argued six landmark Supreme Court cases demonstrating the negative impact gender discrimination has on both women and men. She won five of the six cases she argued, all of which were critical in expanding the scope of civil rights protections under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Ginsburg’s work as an attorney earned her the reputation of being a defender of individual rights with a special concern for oppressed, marginalized, and underserved groups.
Though Justice Ginsburg’s engagement with capital punishment was limited prior to her service on the Supreme Court, in 1977 Justice Ginsburg authored an amicus brief on behalf of the ACLU in the case Coker v. Georgia. At issue was whether the death penalty was a proportionate punishment for rape. Citing a wide range of social science data, Justice Ginsburg’s brief argued that imposing the death penalty in cases of rape violates the Eighth Amendment. Her position won in a 7-2 decision.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Justice Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980. She served on the appellate court for thirteen years and fostered positive relationships with both the liberal and conservative judges she worked alongside. In 1993, Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court. She was confirmed by a Senate vote of 96-3.