Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and Liberal Icon, Dies at 87

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court whose unwavering fight for women’s rights and social justice made her an icon to many admirers of the court’s liberal wing, died Friday. She was 87.

Ginsburg died at her home in Washington, D.C., due to complications of metastatic cancer, according to a statement from the Supreme Court. She was surrounded by family.

"Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague," Chief Justice John G. Roberts said in a statement. "Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice."

Ginsburg’s health had been more uneven in recent years. She was treated with chemotherapy in 2020 for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer — first treated in 2009 — that spread to her liver, and had four prior cancer diagnoses.

She underwent chemotherapy in 2020 for a recurrence of pancreatic cancer — first treated in 2009 — that spread to her liver.  In early November, 2018, she was hospitalized  after fracturing three ribs, leading doctors to discover malignant nodules in her lungs, which were successfully removed in December, 2018. Months later, during the summer of 2019, she was treated for pancreatic cancer. In 1999, she had surgery for colorectal cancer.

Justice Ginsburg, who served on the court for more than 27 years since President Bill Clinton appointed her in 1993, was one of the court’s liberal voices and at the time of her death led the liberal wing’s four members.

While diminutive and soft-spoken, her fiery dissent from the conservative court’s 2013 decision to remove voting rights protections sparked her ascent to pop-star status, earning her the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” (a riff on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.) as well as viral memes and even infant Halloween costumes.

Ginsburg’s renown continued to grow among progressives with her subsequent stinging dissents on reproductive rights and affirmative action cases.

“I am 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me,” she said in 2018’s touching documentary of her life, RBG. That same year, Hollywood made a film of her life story, On the Basis Of Sex starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband, Martin Ginsburg.

The biopic focuses on a young RBG — going through law school at Harvard and Columbia at the top of her class but unable to get hired at a law firm after graduating. Instead, she began her career teaching at Rutgers University's law school, focusing on sex discrimination law.

Ginsburg made a name for herself as a champion of rights for women when she argued and won pioneering sex-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s. Once on the highest court, she wrote the 1996 opinion for the gender discrimination case United States v. Virginia that the all-male Virginia Military Institute must allow women.

Alongside Ginsburg for 56 years was her greatest champion, husband Martin, who died in 2010 from complications of metastatic cancer. They have both said their union was built upon “mutual respect and equality — and a willingness to share domestic duties,” according to The Washington Post.

The daughter of Celia and Nathan Bader, Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. Her father emigrated to America from Russia and worked as a furrier and in a men’s clothing store. Her mother was a housewife.

Raised in Brooklyn, Ginsburg was extraordinarily close with her mother, who imbued in her a passion for learning and scholarship. While Ginsburg was in high school, Celia Bader was diagnosed with cancer. The night before Ginsburg’s graduation, Celia died.

Ginsburg wrote in a 2016 New York Times essay of her mother’s enduring influence: “First, a mother who, by her example, made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to ‘be independent,’ able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.”

During freshman year at Cornell University, the quiet Ginsburg met her future husband on a blind date. “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” she said in RBG.

They married upon her graduation in 1954. Ginsburg’s mother-in-law imparted wise advice that day. “‘In every good marriage,’ she counseled, ‘it helps sometimes to be a little deaf,’ ” Ginsburg recalled in the Times.

“I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court,” she wrote then. “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

In 1955, Ginsburg gave birth to their daughter, Jane. After her husband completed his Army service, the couple attended Harvard Law School. Ginsburg was just one of nine women in a class of 500.

“My success in law school, I have no doubt, was in large measure because of baby Jane. I attended classes and studied diligently until 4 in the afternoon; the next hours were Jane’s time, spent at the park, playing silly games or singing funny songs, reading picture books and A. A. Milne poems, and bathing and feeding her,” Ginsburg wrote in the Times.

“After Jane’s bedtime, I returned to the law books with renewed will. Each part of my life provided respite from the other and gave me a sense of proportion that classmates trained only on law studies lacked.”

While in law school, Martin was stricken with cancer and underwent chemotherapy. Ginsburg helped him with his coursework before she turned to her own.

“So it was after 2 o’clock that I started whatever was needed for my own classes,” Ginsburg once told the Washington Post. “I came to realize that I didn’t need a whole lot of sleep and I could stretch my day.”

Marty, a year ahead of his wife, graduated from Harvard in 1958 and joined a New York City law firm. Ginsburg followed him to Manhattan and finished her final year at Columbia Law School — tied for first in her class.

Despite her intellectual prowess, Ginsburg could not secure the top judicial clerkships or a job at a law firm. “Not a law firm in the entire city of New York would employ me,” she told TIME in a 1993 interview. “I struck out on three grounds: I was Jewish, a woman and a mother.”

Those closed doors eventually led Ginsburg to her work on women’s rights issues, winning five of six cases before the Supreme Court during her time as a professor at Rutgers and then Columbia’s law schools, and as co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ginsburg would spend 13 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit before Clinton needed to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

Marty, by then a well-known tax attorney, marshaled support for his wife’s appointment and became, as Ginsburg told the Post in 2013, “my campaign manager.”

Her passion outside of her family and the law was opera. “If I had any talent that God would give me,” she said in 2015 at Georgetown University’s law school, “I would be a great diva.”

Ginsburg survived colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer, heart surgery, two incidents of broken ribs, hospitalization for an infection and nonsurgical treatment of a gallbladder condition while serving on the Supreme Court. Despite these significant health issues, the only time she missed from the bench was during January, 2019 arguments following surgery to remove two malignant nodules from her left lung on Dec. 21, 2018. 

She credited her ability to bounce back and have continued good health to the trainer she diligently worked out with, who she told theTimes in 2104, “has been my physical fitness guardian since 1999.”

Ruth Bader Ginsberg working out in 2018

Her continued good health was a constant worry for supporters following the election of President Donald Trump, who had installed two conservative justices in the first two years of his administration.

During a 2018 talk at Columbia University’s Law School, Ginsburg spoke of what she loved most in life.

“The tremendous luck I have had, I am a very lucky woman, starting with my dear spouse and my family, two children of whom I am very proud,” she said. “I love beautiful music, I love the work I do. I think I have the best job in the world for a lawyer.”

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