Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a towering women’s rights champion who became the court’s second female justice, died Friday at her home in Washington. She was 87.
Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said.
She argued six key cases before the court in the 1970s when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement. She won five.
“She is such a great example for any law student, for any lawyer, for anyone who believes in equal justice under law, the four words that greet you as you walk into the United States Supreme Court,” said Meg Penrose, professor of law at Texas A&M Law School in Fort Worth. “I mean, I think more than any other justice besides Thurgood Marshall, she personified that in her entire career. “
Penrose also noted Ginsburg’s bipartisan appeal.
“I think she is well-regarded across partisan lines and largely because any advancement of gender equality, whether it was someone arguing a case before the United States Supreme Court, writing the brief, or resolving the case – nearly every major gender equality case that came before the United States Supreme Court since the 1970s, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a part of it. She was either the lawyer, the brief writer or the Justice,” said Penrose.
“It’s one thing to be a great justice – and we have had many great justices in our country,” Penrose said. “But it’s her impact both in front of the bench when she was a lawyer and then on the bench as a justice. And most Americans know her for her role on the court. But her impact is actually more profound for the cases she brought to the court in the area of gender equality. And some of those, she was very, very savvy.”
Penrose noted that gender equality didn’t just protect women.
“She actually brought cases where men were receiving disparate treatment and were being gender stereotyped in negative ways as well,” she said. “And so her impact has been as strong for men as women.”
Penrose said there are many articles that equate what Thurgood Marshall did to help advance racial equality and what Justice Ginsburg did to help advance gender equality.
“But [Ginsburg’s] advancements really sought to break down gender stereotypes of both sexes, that men could be caretakers and women could work in an office,” said Penrose. “And so when you look at her legacy, I would encourage people to really focus on the cases she argued and selected when she went before the United States Supreme Court.”
Ginsburg graduated at the top of her Columbia University law school class in 1959 but could not find a law firm willing to hire her. She had “three strikes against her” — for being Jewish, female and a mother, as she put it in 2007. She had married her husband, Martin, in 1954, the year she graduated from Cornell University. She attended Harvard University’s law school but transferred to Columbia when her husband took a job there. Columbia Law School hired her as its first tenured female faculty member ever, a fact that reverberated throughout the legal community. That fact alone is important to law professors such as Penrose.
“If you want to ask what I think one of her greatest impacts is when I think of myself, she was the first female tenured law professor at Columbia Law School,” said Penrose. “And so that means when I was seeking tenure and people of my generation – I’m in my fifties – when I sought tenure I didn’t have to break down institutional barriers. I just had to prove my worth because Ruth Bader Ginsburg went before me and she broke down that barrier.
“And you could find literally hundreds of people who would tell you that same type of story, that even without meeting her she paved the way and cleared the brush in front of us and opened doors that we don’t even realize,” she said.
Ginsburg’s work ethic was also something to be admired, said Penrose.
“She was a true Renaissance woman in the sense that when she and her husband were both at Harvard Law School and he was first diagnosed with cancer, she was going to his classes taking notes for him and keeping him in school and they were raising a child,” Penrose said. “She was doing so many of the things back when women weren’t even common as students in law schools that we see are common for our students now.”
Aside from her legal prowess, Ginsburg could be an inspiration as a person.
“There are just so many ways that a person can look to her as an inspiration and realize that she balanced a home life, she balanced children while going to law school. She graduates at the top of her class and she can’t get a judicial clerkship. And yet she ultimately becomes a Supreme Court justice,” said Penrose.
Former President Bill Clinton said when he appointed Ginsburg that she didn’t need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books. “She has already done that,” he said.
Following Ginsburg’s death, Clinton said, “Her 27 years on the Court exceeded even my highest expectations when I appointed her.”
On the court, where she was known as a facile writer, her most significant majority opinions were the 1996 ruling that ordered the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding, and the 2015 decision that upheld independent commissions some states use to draw congressional districts.
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.
In addition, she questioned the quality of lawyers for poor accused murderers. In the most divisive of cases, including the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000, she was often at odds with the court’s more conservative members, initially Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
The division remained the same after John Roberts replaced Rehnquist as chief justice, Samuel Alito took O’Connor’s seat, and, under President Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the court, filling seats that had been held by Scalia and Kennedy, respectively.
Ginsburg would say later that the 5-4 decision that settled the 2000 presidential election in favor of Republican George W. Bush was a “breathtaking episode” at the court.
She was perhaps personally closest on the court to Scalia, her ideological opposite. Ginsburg once explained that she took Scalia’s sometimes biting dissents as a challenge to be met. “How am I going to answer this in a way that’s a real putdown?” she said.
Penrose said the way her students view Ginsburg has changed as the justice became a cultural icon.
“I think if you would’ve asked me that 15 years ago, it would have been more in the space of as a lawyer and as a jurist,” said Penrose. “But now she’s this pop culture icon. So, a lot of students come in now to law school and they speak of her as RBG. And what’s great about that from my perspective is still very few Americans can name all nine Supreme Court justices. I would think a very small number of people can name them.”
Knowing of her admiration for Ginsburg, Penrose said many students have sent her notes saying they were thinking about her and how she must be upset by Ginsburg’s death.
“I wrote back and I said, ‘I am sad. I’m very sad because we’ve lost a legal legend.’ And I said, ‘But I have faith in our country and our constitution. And now we carry on.’ ”
“We as lawyers look to the great lawyers and strive to be like them and have a semblance of their brilliance and decency and courage,” said Penrose. “And that’s why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is going to be so memorable. Because we see in her so much of what we believe is the potential of goodness in our country, of fairness, of rising above, of fighting fairly and winning. Winning the unwinnable case.”
- Associated Press contributed to this report