October 01, 2020

In Memoriam: The Life and Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

By Annika Russell, DPRP Intern
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday, September 18, 2020, leaving behind a legacy of fighting for justice for all.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday, September 18, 2020, leaving behind a legacy of fighting for justice for all.

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.

People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Time on the Bench

In her 27 years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a powerful voice. She was known for authoring forceful dissents, which she would occasionally read from the bench for maximum impact. After Justice John Paul Stevens retired in 2010, she became the de facto leader of the court’s four-justice liberal bloc. Justice Ginsburg voted consistently to defend abortion rights, legalize gay marriage, uphold the Affordable Care Act, and otherwise advance the rights of marginalized people and groups. In 1999, she won the American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award for her contributions to gender equality and civil rights.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Justice Ginsburg voted in the majority of every 5-4 Court decision that favored capital defendants and death row prisoners in the past 20 years. These landmark decisions include Roper v. Simmons (2005), which banned capital punishment for defendants under 18 at the time of the crime, and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008), which restricted the death penalty to cases in which a person is killed. More recently, Justice Ginsburg voted with the 5-4 majority to decide Hall v. Florida (2014), which prohibited Florida’s use of a strict numerical cutoff in IQ scores for determining intellectual disability, and authored the opinion in Moore v. Texas (2017), which ensured that states could not execute intellectually disabled people by adopting non-medical standards in determining disability.

Justice Ginsburg also authored the majority opinion in Maples v. Thomas (2012), in which she explicitly raised concerns regarding Alabama’s system for providing lawyers for people facing the death penalty. That case garnered a 7-2 majority in favor of allowing Mr. Maples to return to court to present claims that were waived when his attorneys abandoned him. Justice Ginsburg was long concerned with the quality of representation afforded death row prisoners. In 2001, she famously stated, “People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty. I have yet to see a death case among the dozens coming to the Supreme Court on eve-of-execution stay applications in which the defendant was well represented at trial."

In the 2014 case Glossip v. Gross, Justice Ginsburg joined Justice Breyer’s now-famous dissent which questioned at length the constitutionality of the death penalty. Near the end of her career, Justice Ginsburg became less reserved in expressing her personal views on capital punishment. In a 2014 interview with Duke Law School, when asked about the Glossip dissent, Justice Ginsburg revealed that she had waited to take such a stance on the death penalty because past justices, “took themselves out of the running, [leaving] no room for them to be persuasive with the other justices.” She went on to reaffirm key points of the dissent, stating, “I think that [Justice Breyer] pointed to evidence that has grown in quantity and in quality. He started out by pointing out that there were a hundred people who had been totally exonerated of the capital crime with which they were charged … so one thing is the mistakes that are possible in this system. The other is the quality of representation. Another is … yes there was racial disparity but even more geographical disparity.”

Justice Ginsburg’s absence from the Court will be especially felt in its handling of capital cases. According to DPIC, no prisoner has received a stay of execution from the Supreme Court without her vote in the past five years.