A meticulous legal scholar. A tenacious champion of women’s rights. An inspiration through multiple battles with cancer.
As a lawyer, then Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was always a liberal stalwart. But she became a pop culture icon late in life as she battled to protect her health—and the court’s left-leaning wing. She died Friday, Sept. 18 at age 87.
From her long list of legal victories to her broader fame through two recent films, a book by her trainer about her rigorous workouts, and a whole subset of the craft industry devoted to the special collar she wore when delivering dissents, the “Notorious RBG” had an outsize influence that belied her famously small physical stature.
Tomorrow, she will be the first woman to ever lie in state at the United States Capitol.
Maryland Today spoke with Patrick Wohlfarth, associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics and co-author of two books on the Supreme Court, about how Ginsburg left a mark with her glass ceiling-defying personal accomplishments, advocacy for individual rights and flair for legal battle.
Here are five things to know about Ginsburg’s legacy.
She was a trailblazer for women in law.
In her first year at Harvard Law School, Ginsburg and the other eight women in her class were famously asked by the dean at dinner why each deserved to take the place of a man, and the cold reception did not thaw from there.
Despite being a law review editor and graduating at the top of her class at Columbia, she received no offers from major firms and had difficulty getting interviews for clerkships. Ginsburg took a job teaching at Rutgers and became the first woman tenured full professor in the history of Columbia Law School in 1972.
“(The year) has always struck me as really late,” Wohlfarth said. “It took a long time for the legal profession to include women.”
Even after she became the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, in 1993, there was a three-year gap between the 2006 retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor and the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor when Ginsburg was the lone woman, a stretch she once called “the worst times.”
She won important victories for gender equality.
Around the same time Ginsburg began teaching at Columbia, she took a job directing the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, arguing in multiple cases that the 14th amendment also guaranteed protection from sex discrimination. She won five of six cases that went before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and was part of a decision that for the first time said laws based on sex distinctions would be subject to “intermediate scrutiny.”
“She really was a pioneer in getting those ideas in front of the Supreme Court,” Wohlfarth said. “Her importance to the women’s rights movement can’t be understated.”
That continued on the Supreme Court, where Ginsburg’s first major majority opinion ruling was that the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy was unconstitutional.
She was unafraid to stand against the majority.
As more conservative justices joined the Supreme Court in the latter portion of her tenure, Ginsburg took the then-unusual step of reading her dissents publicly from the bench. In 2007, she essentially issued a call to action for Congress to address a narrow interpretation of the time limit for a pay discrimination suit. It helped lead to 2009’s Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act—the first bill that President Barack Obama signed into law.
It helped that Ginsburg’s writing style was straightforward and clear, Wohlfarth said, devoid of the jargon that often makes legal opinions tough reading.
“She read her dissents from the bench when she felt like the majority got it really wrong and she wanted to make a point,” he said. “In and of itself, it was a powerful and somewhat unique act, which she employed more often later in her tenure on the court.”
She led a life that reached across political lines.
Ginsburg and her husband lived in an apartment at the Watergate, and the proximity to the nearby John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was taken advantage of by the devoted opera fan. Even more notable to Wohlfarth was her deep and abiding friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, “someone who was diametrically opposed to her view of the law” on the court.
Even in fraught political times, the Supreme Court is generally a respectful place, Wohlfarth said, and Ginsburg “really had a reputation for that.”
She could mark the end of a Supreme Court era.
Projecting the impact of new judges on the Supreme Court is notoriously difficult, sometimes even to the presidents who nominate them. But with Ginsburg’s passing, Wohlfarth said, the court has for now lost the liberal justice who was “the great legal firebrand in many respects.”
He expects Sotomayor could step into that role, but if President Donald Trump gets a third nominee approved by the Senate, “this has the potential to swing the court to the right and significantly so”—a contentious part of Ginsburg’s legacy, with political commentators still sparring over whether she should have retired early in Obama’s tenure and left the seat for a younger Democratic nominee.
Chief Justice John Roberts may no longer be the “swing vote,” Wohlfarth said, and maybe Neil Gorsuch or Brett Kavanaugh show themselves to be more ideologically idiosyncratic than assumed. Both David Souter and John Paul Stevens were appointed by Republican presidents but famously shifted to the left.
“There’s always the possibility you appoint someone and they show they have a mind of their own, or they evolve and their thinking changes,” Wohlfarth said. “Justices’ views of the world change along with society’s.”