By Paul Hinta
It has been just over a month since the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a death that sent shockwaves throughout the United States and the rest of the world. For the last 27 years of her life, the honourable Justice served on the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Throughout her life she led an inspirational fight against cancer, beating colon cancer (through surgery and chemotherapy) in 1999-2000, unfortunately it re-emerged in her pancreas in 2019, ultimately taking her life on September 18, 2020. This short article does not attempt to summarize Ginsburg’s life or legacy; such a task would be impossible. However, it does give some insight into some of the most influential moments in her life. I write this brief piece with the hope that it inspires you to take a few minutes to do your own research about how Ginsburg helped shape modern law, politics, and activism.
Who was RBG?
A Brooklyn native, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born in 1933; she spent much of her early life in the state of New York, completing her Bachelor of Arts at Cornell before moving to Boston to attend Harvard Law School. However, due to reasons in her personal life, she moved back to New York to finish her Law Degree at Columbia. Notably, she was at the top of her class at both schools. She then went on to teach law at both Rutgers University and Harvard for 9 and 8 years respectively, between 1963 and 1980.
In 1972, her life took a powerful turn. Ginsburg had initially entered the field of law out of self-interest. However, after graduating as one of the only nine women in a class of 500 law grads, she realized that she would no longer stay complicit in the inequality of the sexes that was so pervasive in the United States. In 1972 (the same year she became a tenured professor at Harvard), she joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), where she served as general counsel. That same year, she co-founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, where alongside the likes of Pauli Murray and Brenda Feigen she fought for gender and sex equality. Between 1973 and 1976, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them.
Following this, she was appointed to the US Court of Appeals, DC Circuit, serving as a judge from 1980 to 1993. In 1993, she accepted the nomination to the Supreme Court from President Bill Clinton, and joined the highest court as a Justice to preside over cases in the US for the rest of her career.
What she was known for
Ever since law school, Ginsburg was praised as a pioneer for womens’ rights. Although her work in social justice at the ACLU is impressive enough, it is perhaps the latter portion of her career that defined Ginsburg’s legacy. Throughout her time serving on the Supreme Court, she was known for making progressive decisions, nevertheless maintaining a rare sharpness of mind. During this time, she was part of the majority for a number of well-known cases. Here are just three examples:
- Striking down male-only admission policies for military institutions (US v. Virginia, 1996)
- Legalizing same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015)
- Striking down legislation that allows for the expulsion of undocumented immigrants for vaguely-defined “crime” (Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018)
It is worth noting that most of the time, she was part of a court that held a 5-4 conservative majority; as a result, her most influential moments come from the powerful dissents she wrote. These were extremely significant; although the case at hand was not decided in her favour, her statements helped influence later legislation. Here are a few of her most notable dissents:
- Shelby County v. Holder: In this 2013 case, the conservative-led court ruled (with a 5-4 majority) that it is unconstitutional for states to require federal oversight on jurisdictions when they change their voting legislation. Especially when those jurisdictions have had a history of racism. Ginsburg opposed this decision, writing: “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in [the court’s] utter failure to grasp why the [law] has proven effective.”
- Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.: In 2007, the tire manufacturer counter-sued former employee Lilly Ledbetter, who had won a federal court case against Goodyear four years prior due to gender discrimination in her pay. In 2007, Goodyear argued that Ledbetter’s claim was made after the legally binding period, and the court ruled 5-4 in favour of Goodyear by essentially claiming that a woman who faces discrimination by their employer must sue against them the very first time it happens. In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote about the other eight justices on the court, all of whom were male: “The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.”
- Gonzales v. Carhart: In 2007, SCOTUS decided (once more with a 5-4 majority) that the federal legislation that banned partially-birthed abortions, the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 was not unconstitutional. Dissenting to this, Ginsburg criticized the other judges for abandoning the notion of precedent, writing: “a decision so at odds with our jurisprudence should not have staying power.”
What this means for society moving forward
The passing of a Supreme Court Justice leaves a bitter hole to fill: on the court bench, in the political world, and in our hearts. Regardless, the world keeps going, and Ginsburg’s death will resonate throughout the political landscape for some time. Although there’s no way to be certain, here are a few consequences that we can imagine:
Impact on SCOTUS: We could be looking at a 5-4 conservative SCOTUS being replaced by a long-term 6-3 majority. This is because the sitting president gets to appoint a new Justice when there is a vacancy, and Amy Coney Barrett has been undergoing several confirmation hearings to fill this position. This is significant because there is no term limit for a Supreme Court Justice; the next vacancy will occur only with the next passing of one filling the bench right now. This means that if Coney Barrett is confirmed, America could expect decades to come of conservative decisions.
The upcoming US election: without a women’s rights icon on SCOTUS, reproductive healthcare may become a key question in the eyes of this election’s voters; we already saw Kamala Harris and Mike Pence clash on their views of abortion during the vice-presidential debate. Since there is no clear backup to “undo” laws on the topic, voters may be more inclined to consider the views on abortion of the two parties: Biden and Harris advocating for progressive policies, while Trump and Pence look to roll back decades of progress.
The rise of social activism: Ruth Bader Ginsburg was and is an icon for many. Although she is no longer with us, there is no discounting the long-lasting presence which will be felt for decades. This will manifest in activists who use Ginsburg as inspiration, as well as direct support through her precedents and dissents. We have already seen this: Congress passed new, comprehensive voting rights legislation in 2018 following her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (2013).
What we can do to honour her
In the passing of a social justice giant such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we are left with so much progress to reflect on, as well as a long road left ahead of us before true equality. Despite this, I encourage taking some time to look back on Ginsburg’s life, to learn from her and honour her accomplishments. The first and most obvious way to do this is to take some time to research about her. In doing so, learn her history, her experiences, her points of view, all of which give us a deeper understanding of what she has done for the world.
In the same light, open a conversation about her. Whether it’s with your friends, family or co-workers, .None of what Ginsburg has done for gender equality would have been possible without first starting a dialogue about the issues that became her passions. In talking to others about her, you are not only taking the time to educate yourself and others, but you are directly keeping the conversation alive, helping towards accomplishing her ultimate goals.
Finally, it is important to understand that Ginsburg was a human being. She had her own opinions, and although she was known for remaining logical in her decisions, it would be nearly impossible for one to completely agree with everything she has done. It is completely reasonable to honour someone’s legacy, while keeping in mind and scrutinizing controversial parts of their past (for instance, her treatment of the indigenous community). In doing so, she can be honoured for what she did. She can be honoured for being a pioneer for gender equality, an icon in modern law, and a human being.