Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talks about her career during 'A Conversation with Justice Ginsburg' on Wednesday afternoon in Wait Chapel. Hosting the event is WFU Law professor Suzanne Reynolds. (Photo: Wake Forest University School of Law, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

An already hor­rif­ic, awful year filled with tragedies has man­aged to get worse. Tonight, the Supreme Court released the fol­low­ing announce­ment:

Asso­ciate Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg died this evening sur­round­ed by her fam­i­ly at her home in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., due to com­pli­ca­tions of metasta­t­ic pan­creas can­cer. She was eighty-sev­en years old.

Jus­tice Gins­burg was appoint­ed to the Supreme Court by Pres­i­dent Clin­ton in 1993. She was the sec­ond woman appoint­ed to the Court and served more than twen­ty-sev­en years.

She is sur­vived by her two chil­dren: Jane Car­ol Gins­burg (George Spera) and James Steven Gins­burg (Patrice Michaels), 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. Her hus­band, Mar­tin David Gins­burg, died in 2010.

All of us at NPI extend our deep­est con­do­lences to the Gins­burg fam­i­ly and all of her friends. This is news of the worst and most griev­ous kind. Jus­tice Gins­burg was one of our bright­est lights: a for­mi­da­ble jurist, staunch advo­cate for wom­en’s rights, and a trail­blaz­er for oth­ers. RBG, as she is affec­tion­ate­ly known to so many, leaves a pro­found and pow­er­ful lega­cy that we must celebrate.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg talks about her career dur­ing ‘A Con­ver­sa­tion with Jus­tice Gins­burg’ on Wednes­day after­noon in Wait Chapel. Host­ing the event is WFU Law pro­fes­sor Suzanne Reynolds. (Pho­to: Wake For­est Uni­ver­si­ty School of Law, repro­duced under a Cre­ative Com­mons license)

Jus­tice Gins­burg was born on March 15th, 1933, in Brook­lyn, New York City, to obser­vant Jew­ish par­ents Celia and Nathan Bad­er. Though her giv­en name was Joan, she became known as Ruth (her mid­dle name) at her moth­er’s sug­ges­tion, since sev­er­al oth­er girls in her class also had the first name Joan.

Though a bright pupil, Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg’s senior year was not a hap­py one, as her moth­er died from can­cer the day before she grad­u­at­ed from James Madi­son High School. Though the pain of los­ing her moth­er at age sev­en­teen must have been immense, Bad­er Gins­burg did not let it deter her from giv­ing col­lege her all.

She excelled at Cor­nell, becom­ing the high­est-rank­ing female stu­dent in her grad­u­at­ing class. While attend­ing Cor­nell, she met Mar­tin Gins­burg, and they mar­ried just a month after she earned her bach­e­lor of arts degree in government.

Gins­burg was accept­ed to Har­vard’s Col­lege of Law in 1954, only one of nine women in a class num­ber­ing around five hundred.

She trans­ferred to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty to com­plete her legal stud­ies after Mar­tin Gins­burg took a job in New York City. Gins­burg was on the Har­vard Law Review pri­or to trans­fer­ring; she joined the Colum­bia Law Review after trans­fer­ring, becom­ing the first woman to have con­tributed to both publications.

Gins­burg remained at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty after grad­u­at­ing as research asso­ciate; she also clerked for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. Dis­trict Court for the South­ern Dis­trict of New York dur­ing her twenties.

In 1963, Gins­burg was hired at Rut­gers. Although she was not com­pen­sat­ed fair­ly, she stuck with the uni­ver­si­ty and even­tu­al­ly became a tenured pro­fes­sor. Dur­ing her time at Rut­gers, she found­ed the pio­neer­ing Wom­en’s Rights Law Reporter, the first pub­li­ca­tion of its kind devot­ed to wom­en’s rights. She returned to Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in 1972 and served on the fac­ul­ty there until 1980.

That same year (1972), Gins­burg co-found­ed the Wom­en’s Rights Project at the Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union (ACLU). The fol­low­ing year, she took on the impor­tant role of the pro­jec­t’s gen­er­al coun­sel and argued a series of land­mark dis­crim­i­na­tion cas­es before the Supreme Court, win­ning five out of six.

RBG with President Carter
Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg with Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter the year she was nom­i­nat­ed to the D.C. Cir­cuit Court of Appeals (Offi­cial White House Photograph)

In 1980, Gins­burg’s time in acad­e­mia came to an end when she was nom­i­nat­ed by Pres­i­dent Jim­my Carter to serve on the Unit­ed States Court of Appeals for the Dis­trict of Colum­bia Cir­cuit, suc­ceed­ing Judge Harold Lev­en­thal. Gins­burg held this posi­tion until 1993, when she was nom­i­nat­ed by Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton to serve on the Unit­ed States Supreme Court. At the time Gins­burg was nom­i­nat­ed, the Supreme Court had just one female jus­tice: San­dra Day O’Connor.

The Unit­ed States Sen­ate con­firmed Gins­burg’s Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion, just as it had con­firmed her Cir­cuit Court nom­i­na­tion thir­teen years prior.

RBG with President Clinton
Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg accepts her Supreme Court nom­i­na­tion (Pho­to: Shan­non Farmer/The White House)

So it was that in 1993, Gins­burg began the final chap­ter of her pio­neer­ing and remark­able life. Per­haps no Jus­tice has ever been bet­ter known to the Amer­i­can peo­ple than she was. Like oth­er note­wor­thy Amer­i­cans who served dur­ing the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry (FDR, JFK, LBJ), Gins­burg came to be known sim­ply as “RBG”, or some­times, the Noto­ri­ous RBG. She became the most senior mem­ber of the Supreme Court’s lib­er­al bloc dur­ing Barack Oba­ma’s pres­i­den­cy, owing to the retire­ment of Jus­tice John Paul Stevens (who was suc­ceed­ed by Ele­na Kagan).

Both dur­ing the time of the Rehn­quist Court and the suc­ces­sive Roberts Court, Jus­tice Gins­burg was a depend­able vote and a strong voice for all of the caus­es that Amer­i­ca’s most dis­tin­guished his­tor­i­cal fig­ures were asso­ci­at­ed with, like civ­il rights, vot­ing rights, labor rights, envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, and access to justice.

Dur­ing the Bush years, the Oba­ma years, and the Trump years, Gins­burg authored (and some­times also read) an impres­sive series of incred­i­bly pow­er­ful dis­sents that expert­ly tore apart the immoral ratio­nales on which a series of bad Supreme Court deci­sions hand­ed down by the Court’s right wing bloc were based.

In oth­er instances, such as when Antho­ny Kennedy defect­ed from the Court’s right wing bloc to back mar­riage equal­i­ty, or when John Roberts defect­ed to uphold the Patient Pro­tec­tion Act, Jus­tice Gins­burg par­tic­i­pat­ed in the issuance of his­toric deci­sions that made the Unit­ed States a bet­ter and freer country.

It is impos­si­ble to do jus­tice to Jus­tice Gins­burg’s career, life, and lega­cy in a blog post, even a long one. There’s a good rea­son that books have been writ­ten about her and movies made about her. She was an exem­plary activist, a jurist of the high­est cal­iber, a tru­ly great Amer­i­can, and an excep­tion­al human being.

But we would be remiss if we did not try to hon­or Jus­tice Gins­burg to the best of our abil­i­ty tonight and in the days to come. Phys­i­cal­ly, in life, Jus­tice Gins­burg was not a tow­er­ing fig­ure. Metaphor­i­cal­ly, though, in so many ways, she was a giant. Her decades of courage and per­sis­tence should inspire us all.

These are unques­tion­ably dark days, filled with tragedy. Bad news seems to be the only cer­tain­ty right now. But Jus­tice Gins­burg would­n’t want us to mark her pass­ing by sink­ing into a well of despair. She’d want us to cel­e­brate her life and then fight on, like she did, until her last breath. Fight ’em till we can’t — that was what I remarked that we need­ed to do almost four years ago when it became evi­dent the Elec­toral Col­lege would give Don­ald Trump the presidency.

Until we have all fol­lowed Jus­tice Gins­burg’s exam­ple, the fight can­not be over.

Thank you, Jus­tice Gins­burg, for every­thing. Thank you for near­ly four decades of hon­or­able ser­vice in our fed­er­al courts, includ­ing the high­est court in the land. Thank you for smash­ing down bar­ri­ers that enabled dis­crim­i­na­tion on the basis of sex and gen­der iden­ti­ty. Thank you for car­ing about the rights of all peo­ple, and the future of our plan­et. Thank you for show­ing us what it means to over­come adver­si­ty and hard­ship. We will miss you. But we’ll nev­er for­get you.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Adjacent posts