Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the pioneering Supreme Court justice who became the second female on the nation’s highest court, the leader of its liberal wing and a pop culture icon known as Notorious R.B.G., died Friday night. She was 87.
Ginsburg died surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, D.C., due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, the court said.
The vacancy enables President Donald Trump to nominate his third justice to swing the bench further to the right, setting up what’s certain to be a colossal battle perhaps even bigger than those of his nominations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
According to NPR, days before her death, Ginsburg told her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said in a statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. 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.”
The White House flag has been lowered to half-staff in her memory.
Trump was stunned when a reporter informed him of the news.
“She has died?” Trump responded. “Wow. I didn’t know that. You’re telling me now for the first time. She led an amazing life. What else can you say? She was an amazing woman, whether you agreed or not, she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life. I’m actually saddened to hear that. I am saddened to hear that. Thank you very much.”
Ginsburg had a history of medical problems. In December 2018, doctors removed two cancerous nodules from her left lung, and she underwent additional treatment in August 2019 for a tumor on her pancreas. She was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1999 and underwent surgery in 2009 for pancreatic cancer.
By early January 2020, Ginsburg told CNN she was “cancer free,” but in July she announced that she was being treated for liver cancer.
The nodules in her lung were discovered in November 2018, when she was hospitalized for broken ribs following a fall in her office. Ginsburg’s convalescence 2½ weeks after the lung surgery ended her 25-year streak of never missing hearing a Supreme Court case for any reason outside of recusal, but she continued to work from home in her Watergate apartment.
In her second day back on the bench, she read the opinion she had written in a unanimous ruling against excessive punishment.
“I think my work is what saved me because instead of dwelling on my physical discomforts if I have an opinion to write or a brief to read, I know I’ve just got to get it done so I have to get over it,” she told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in a September 2019 interview at an event hosted by the Clinton Foundation and the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service.
In another interview with Totenberg two months later, she defended herself from criticism that she should have retired while President Barack Obama was in office. “When that suggestion is made, I ask the question: Who do you think the president could nominate that could get through the Republican Senate? Who you would prefer on the court than me?”
The subject of two major movies in 2018 and an animated cameo appearance in a 2019 Lego movie, Ginsburg battled for the equality of the sexes. The first movie, “RBG,” was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary.
Her dedication to the law was perhaps best illustrated by the fact that she always kept a “pocket Constitution” in her handbag.
Months after giving birth, Ginsburg became one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School in 1956. After transferring to Columbia Law School and tied for No. 1 in her graduating class in 1959, she had trouble finding a law firm to hire her. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected her for a clerkship on the basis of her gender, despite the recommendation of Harvard Law’s dean.
“A Jew, a woman and a mother, that was a bit much. Three strikes put me out of the game,” she once recalled.
Ginsburg became a professor at Rutgers Law in 1963 and later Columbia Law’s first woman tenured faculty member. She helped launch the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972.
“Women’s rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy,” she said.
Confirmation vote: 96-3
Ginsburg was appointed to the high court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. The Senate confirmed her nomination by a near-unanimous 96-3.
The Brooklyn-born daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Russia was the second woman to rise to the bench of the nation’s highest court, following Sandra Day O’Connor, who broke the barrier in 1981 after being appointed by President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was the last president to fill three Supreme Court seats.
“Throughout her life,” Clinton said in introducing Ginsburg as his nominee, “she has repeatedly stood for the individual, the person less well off, the outsider in society, and has given those people greater hope by telling them that they have a place in our legal system, by giving them a sense that the Constitution and the laws protect all the American people, not simply the powerful.”
Ginsburg took over the leadership of the court’s liberal wing in 2010 upon the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, who died in 2019.
Thirteen years before joining the high court, Ginsburg was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, nominated to the position by President Jimmy Carter. And before becoming a judge, she argued six sex-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five.
In an even earlier sex discrimination case, she and her late husband, Martin, a tax lawyer, successfully argued Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1972. The couple represented Charles Moritz, who in 1968 was denied a deduction for expenses he incurred in caring for his invalid mother. Under the law, a woman was entitled to such a deduction but not most men.
The case, the only one the couple had argued together, was depicted in the 2018 biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her husband. The screenplay was written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who was inspired to write the story after hearing a eulogy at his Uncle Martin’s funeral in 2010.
“Ruth Ginsburg was as responsible as any one person for legal advances that women made under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution,” Marcia Greenberger, founder of the National Women’s Law Center, told The New York Times in 1993. “As a result, doors of opportunity have been opened that have benefited not only the women themselves but their families.”
An immigrant’s daughter
“I learned very early on in our marriage that Ruth was a fairly terrible cook and, for lack of interest, unlikely to improve,” Martin Ginsburg said in a speech years later. “Out of self-preservation, I decided I had better learn to cook because Ruth, to quote her precisely, was expelled from the kitchen by her food-loving children nearly a quarter-century ago.”
RBG enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1956, where her husband was studying, and became the first woman member of the Harvard Law Review. She also helped her husband with his studies while he was being treated for testicular cancer. After receiving his degree, he joined the law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York and Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School.
After Justice Frankfurter’s rejection in 1960, she did get a clerkship that year from federal Judge Edmund Palmieri of the Southern District of New York. Later, she became associate director of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, and went to Sweden, where she co-authored a book about legal procedure there.
“Reading and observing another system made me understand my own system so much better,” she told CNN in January 2020 about her research in Sweden.
Asked in a 2019 interview with NPR to name her greatest accomplishment, she said it was her work as a lawyer in the ’60s and ’70s leading the legal fight for gender equality.
In the Supreme Court
In the Washington building that bears the motto “Equal Justice Under Law,” Ginsburg won the first case she argued before the nation’s highest court, the landmark 1973 Frontiero v. Richardson, a gender discrimination case. Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero, and her husband, Joseph, challenged a law that allowed female military spouses to receive full benefits as dependents but not to men married to women in uniform. By 8-1, the justices ruled that the statute was discriminatory.
Three years later, she prevailed in Craig v. Boren, in which the court rejected Oklahoma’s statute that women could buy beer at age 18 but men had to be at least 21.
Her notable rulings as a Supreme Court justice included the 1996 landmark United States v. Virginia, in which she wrote the majority opinion striking down Virginia Military Institute’s traditional male-only admission policy.
The 7-1 ruling said VMI violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. “Women seeking and fit for a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less, under the State’s obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection,” Ginsburg wrote.
In the 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision, Ginsburg said that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, mentally disabled people have the right to live in the community rather than in institutions “when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
During her convalescence from lung surgery, she wrote the 2019 ruling in Timbs v. Indiana that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to states and local governments, not just federal government. At issue was the confiscation of a $42,000 Land Rover from an Indiana man who pleaded guilty to selling $225 of heroin to undercover police officers.
“For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties,” Ginsburg wrote in the 9-0 ruling. “Excessive fines can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies.”
Some of her most memorable opinions were dissents. Among them:
Gonzales v. Carhart, in which the court in 2007 upheld Congress’ Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Opponents of the ban contended that the procedure, also known as “intact dilation and extraction,” was the safest way to avoid damaging a woman’s uterus when ending a late-term pregnancy. It was the first time the court had banned a specific abortion method and the first time it did not include an exception for the woman’s health, according to The Washington Post.
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy said Congress may regulate an area where doctors have not reached a consensus about the necessity of the procedure in protecting the woman’s health. “Respondents have not demonstrated that the Act, as a facial matter, is void for vagueness, or that it imposes an undue burden on a woman’s right to abortion based on its overbreadth or lack of a health exception,” he wrote.
In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote that the majority ruling “tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”
“In candor, the Act, and the Court’s defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.”
She added: “The court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety. This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution — ideas that have long since been discredited.”
She also was among the four-justice minority in the 2007 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and she took the rare step of reading her dissent from the bench. The majority ruled against Lilly Ledbetter in her claim of unequal pay because of her sex. As an area manager, Ledbetter was paid $3,727 per month compared with $4,286 for the lowest paid male counterpart.
The majority on the court did not rule on the merits of Ledbetter’s claim made under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The five justices rejected it on grounds that it was filed too long from the time the original decision was made about her pay.
Citing the often secret nature of salary levels, Ginsburg said: “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”
“The ball is in Congress’ court … to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII,” she wrote.
Two years later, Congress took such action, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which said each discriminatory paycheck resets the 180-day limit to file a claim. It was the first law signed by Obama. Ginsburg kept a framed copy of the 2009 law on a wall in her chambers.
In the 2014 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores case, the court for the first time recognized a for-profit corporation’s claim of religious belief. The store chain, owned by the Evangelical Green family, challenged an Affordable Care Act mandate that employers cover the cost of certain contraceptives for their female employees. In a 5-4 ruling, the high court ruled that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In her dissent, Ginsburg said: “Until this litigation, no decision of this Court recognized a for-profit corporation’s qualification for a religious exemption from a generally applicable law, whether under the Free Exercise Clause or RFRA. The absence of such precedent is just what one would expect, for the exercise of religion is characteristic of natural persons, not artificial legal entities. … Approving some religious claims while deeming others unworthy of accommodation could be ‘perceived as favoring one religion over another,’ the very ‘risk the Establishment Clause was designed to preclude.’ The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.”
In another minefield, the outcome of the 2000 presidential election between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore was thrust into the court’s domain following the chaotic results in Florida. By one vote, 5-4, the Supreme Court abruptly stopped a vote recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court.
In her dissent, Ginsburg criticized the majority’s willingness to interpret Florida law.
”The extraordinary setting of this case has obscured the ordinary principle that dictates its proper resolution: federal courts defer to state high courts’ interpretations of their state’s own law. This principle reflects the core of federalism, on which all agree,” she wrote. ”Were the other members of this court as mindful as they generally are of our system of dual sovereignty, they would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.”
The other dissenters, Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Stephen Breyer, said they had done so ”respectfully,” but Ginsburg singed off by saying only: ”I dissent.”
Ginsburg on Roe v. Wade
Despite her credentials as a fighter for women’s rights, Ginsburg was critical of the high court’s 1973 landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, which said the right to privacy extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. In a lecture she gave nearly two decades later and published in the New York University Law Review, Ginsburg contended that the court should have limited its ruling to Texas’ criminal abortion statute, which outlawed abortions except to save the life of the pregnant woman. In short, she said, the court went too far too fast.
“Suppose the Court had stopped there, rightly declaring unconstitutional the most extreme brand of law in the nation, and had not gone on, as the Court did in Roe, to fashion a regime blanketing the subject, a set of rules that displaced virtually every state law then in force. Would there have been the twenty-year controversy we have witnessed?” she said. “[Judges] do not alone shape legal doctrine but … they participate in a dialogue with other organs of government, and with the people as well. … Measured motions seem to me right, in the main, for constitutional as well as common law adjudication. Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable.”
‘I wish her well’
After Ginsburg’s fall in her office in November 2018, Trump wished her a speedy recovery from the broken ribs. “I wish her well,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I hope she serves on the Supreme Court for many, many years.”
But during the 2016 presidential campaign, he called on her to resign after she broke from the tradition of Supreme Court justices avoiding commenting on elections. When asked by The Associated Press during a July 2016 interview about the implications of a Trump victory for the Supreme Court, she said: “I don’t want to think about that possibility, but if it should be, then everything is up for grabs.”
In a subsequent interview with The New York Times, she went further, saying: “I can’t imagine what this place would be — I can’t imagine what the country would be — with Donald Trump as our president. … For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.”
She went even further with CNN, saying Trump was “a faker.”
Then-candidate Trump called on her to resign.
Trump tweet: Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot – resign!
The flap calmed down after Ginsburg apologized, saying in a statement: “On reflection, my recent remarks in response to press inquiries were ill-advised and I regret making them. … Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office. In the future I will be more circumspect.”
In pop culture, Ginsburg became an icon. Fellow liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor nicknamed her “The Steel Magnolia” because she was “delicate on the outside, but she has an iron rod behind it.”
Ginsburg’s opinions, including her searing dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, inspired NYU law school student Shana Knizhnik in 2013 to create a Tumblr blog she called “Notorious R.B.G.,” a takeoff of the nickname of the late rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The blog, later compiled into a book, is filled with Ginsburg memes, aided by her reputation as a workout queen.
Caricatures of her image have gone viral, showing up on record albums, T-shirts, book covers, tattoos and even the 2019 “The Lego Movie 2.”
But it wasn’t all lowbrow culture.
She was a classical music maven — she played the cello “not well,” she said, in high school and piano from ages 8 to 16. Her son founded the classical recording label Cedille Chicago. Her first outing following her lung surgery was to attend a concert in her honor, performed by musicians including her daughter-in-law, soprano/composer Patrice Michaels, at Washington’s National Museum of Women in the Arts. Before the concert, James Ginsburg said his mother was walking a mile a day and meeting with her personal trainer twice a week.
Her love of opera earned her a cameo appearance in a nonsinging role on the stage of the Washington National Opera in 2016. Her legal opinions, and those of conservative rival and fellow opera aficionado Antonin Scalia, inspired Derrick Wang to write the comic opera “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which premiered in 2015.
Ginsburg is survived by her son James (Patrice Michaels), a daughter, Columbia law professor Jane Carol Ginsburg (George Spera); four grandchildren: Paul Spera (Francesca Toich), Clara Spera (Rory Boyd), Miranda Ginsburg, Abigail Ginsburg, two step-grandchildren: Harjinder Bedi, Satinder Bedi, and one great-grandchild: Lucrezia Spera.
A private interment service will be held at Arlington National Cemetery, the court said.