Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, fondly known as RBG, passed away after serving as a Supreme Court judge for nearly three decades. Judges in the United States of America Supreme Court do not have a retirement age; they serve for life, as did Justice Ginsburg.
Born to immigrant parents, RBG studied first at Cornell, and then at Harvard Law School. In what was perhaps the first of many glass ceilings that she smashed, she was one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard. She then transferred to Columbia, where she passed out first in her class. She then had a brilliant stint (again as the first woman) at the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review.
She had many obstacles and was rejected as a candidate based solely on her gender. At Harvard Law School, all the women were called to tea by a Professor and asked how they felt about taking a place ‘earmarked for men.’ As a worker at a social security office, RBG would later recount how she was demoted owing to her pregnancy.
Despite all the odds, RBG had an illustrious academic career. She researched extensively on the Swedish legal system. She would later recount, it was here that she was introduced to notions of sex discrimination and gender parity. In law schools, women occupied about one-fourth of the seats. One of the judges working there, she observed, was eight months pregnant.
She was rejected for clerkship by a judge, despite stellar recommendations from a top professor. She was only later appointed a clerk when Professor Gerald Gunther told Judge Edward Palmieri that he recommends her. Should she fail in the role, he had a young man who would step in. She recounts,
“That was the carrot. And the stick was, if you don’t give her a chance, I’ll never recommend another Columbia student.”
She taught at Rutgers Law School from 1961. She would again recount how she was told that she would be paid less than her male peers, because her husband had a high paying job. She was, at that time, one of the 20-odd women professors in the United States. She would later become the first tenured woman professor at Columbia, and as another first, co-found the Women’s Rights Law Reporter- the first American journal to focus on the issue.
In the 1970s, she co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She fought a number of discriminatory laws. while representing both men and women. In the ground-breaking case of Reed v Reed, it was ruled that the administrators of an estate could not be named in ways that discriminated on gender. In Mortiz v Commissioner, she also argued and succeeded in getting a man caregiver deduction which he was denied based on gender.
This led to her being nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Carter. Her decisions there showed a great understanding of discrimination and brought in a voice that was previously non-existent to a great extent. She was then nominated to the Supreme Court as an associate Justice by President Clinton. She was the second female justice to be appointed. Widely seen as a liberal judge, she ruled on a number of crucial matters. She brought in a voice of diversity and inclusivity.
Regarding a case (Safford Unified School District v. Redding), where a 13-year-old girl was asked to strip to search her for drugs, RBG said that some of her colleagues did not fully appreciate the effect of this exercise because perhaps, "they have never been a 13-year-old girl". She was also a fierce supporter of finding value in law beyond the shores of the United States of America. She always maintained that there was great persuasive value to international law and it had the potential of shaping domestic US law.
It has been noted that her decisions were based on fact and were difficult to reduce to an ideology. It has been famously said in the New York Times, ‘Judge Ginsburg, who is left-handed but learned to play with right-handed clubs, played golf as she decided cases: aiming left, swinging right and hitting down the middle.’
Judges like RBG have a great role in democracies. She made decisions that brought in perspectives that were diverse and varied. Her role in interpreting the US Constitution was certainly ground-breaking and showed sensitivity and understanding of the law in an evolving environment. Equally, personally, she inspired and became a role model for generations. In the Supreme Court, she departed from tradition and chose her own attire. So much so, that in many American households, the glamorous Barbie doll was replaced by a ‘doll’ dressed like her- doing away with stereotypical gender roles.
In her biography, she noted that she was often asked if she has some good advice to share. She quotes her mother-in-law, who advised her, "in every good marriage it helps to be a little deaf". RBG said that was her advice to everyone - to be a little deaf. Ironically, many would say that she listened- always.
With her passing away, the Supreme Court has a vacancy that will be filled. On her deathbed, she told her daughter that she "will not be replaced before the next President". The vacancy will be filled in due course, the void won’t. Nonetheless, she leaves behind a legacy that is rich, righteous, and perhaps most importantly, empowering.