JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG
March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an extraordinary champion of gender equality. The second woman ever to serve on the United States Supreme Court, her contributions as a lawyer and jurist changed the way that the Court and the country thought about women’s rights. Justice Ginsburg’s very career underscored the importance of diversity and equity in the judicial decision-making process.
Born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, she attended Cornell University on a scholarship, graduating first in her class in 1954 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in government. In 1956, she enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of just nine women in a class of 552 – and where the dean scolded her for taking a man’s seat. She subsequently transferred to Columbia Law School, earning her law degree in 1959. An outstanding law student, she served as an editor of both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review and tied for first in her graduating class.
Despite her academic accomplishments, no New York law firm would hire her, simply because she was a woman. She secured a clerkship with a federal district judge, Edmund Palmieri, only after one of her mentors, Professor Gerald Gunther, threatened never to send the judge another law clerk if he refused to hire her.
In 1972, she became the first woman to receive tenure on the Columbia Law faculty. The same year, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and became its first director. In that position, she crafted and carried out a litigation strategy aimed at persuading the justices on the Supreme Court that government discrimination on the basis of gender, like government discrimination on the basis of race, violates the Equal Protection Clause. Between 1973 and 1976, she won five of the six gender discrimination cases that she argued before the Court, convincing the justices to strike down laws that reinforced stereotypical notions of women’s dependency on and subservience to men. She was an exceptionally skilled advocate whose work led directly to ending gender discrimination in many areas of the law.
In 1980, Justice Ginsburg was nominated by President Jimmy Carter and confirmed by the Senate to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. She served on that court until 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice to the United States Supreme Court. When the Senate confirmed her by a vote of 96-3, she was viewed as a moderate. With her nomination, President Clinton sought to increase the Court’s diversity: She was the Court’s first Jewish justice since 1969 and its second female justice ever.
One of her most triumphant moments on the Court came nearly 20 years after she had made her last argument as a lawyer before the justices. On June 26, 1996, she announced the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia. That decision held unconstitutional the state-supported Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admissions policy. Speaking for the Court, Justice Ginsburg explained that “[sex] classifications may no longer be used, as they once were, to create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of women. . . . Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”
The vacancy on the Court that Justice Ginsburg’s death creates has already ignited partisan battles over the nomination and confirmation of her successor – a culture war that Justice Ginsburg anticipated, dictating a statement, just days before her death, that reads: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” But ideology aside, Justice Ginsburg remained passionately committed to her life-long goal of seeing women in positions of power equal to those long held by men. As she noted wryly on more than one occasion, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”
The Mitchell Hamline community celebrates the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the legacy she leaves behind, a legacy of service to others, of commitment to justice, and of passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her loss – to the Court, the nation, and the world – is an enormous one, and the void she leaves will not be soon or easily filled. Mitchell Hamline will honor her life by constantly fighting for equality and justice for all people. Our hope is that we all follow her advice when she said: “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Rest in peace and power, Notorious RBG.
Anthony Niedwiecki, President & Dean
Sharon Van Leer, Manager, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion
Professor Raleigh Levine, James E. Kelley Chair in Tort Law