Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice Who Championed Women's Rights, Dies at 87

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday of “complications of metastatic pancreas cancer,” the Supreme Court announced. She died in her home in Washington surrounded by family.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court and whose passionate fight for women’s rights and social justice made her a feminist, cultural and legal icon, has died. She was 87. 

Ginsburg died Friday of “complications of metastatic pancreas cancer,” the Supreme Court announced. She died in her home in Washington surrounded by family, NPR reported. 

"Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature," Chief Justice John Roberts said. "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 tired and resolute champion of justice."

Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter shortly before her death, according to NPR. “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed," she said.

Ginsburg was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton. In recent years, Ginsburg served as the most senior member of the court's liberal wing. She was a consistent progressive on matters many consider divisive, such as abortion rights, immigration and affirmative action. She was also a staunch defender of same-sex marriage and voting rights. 

Born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York to a Jewish emigrant from Odessa, Ukraine and a first generation Austrian Jewish-American, Ginsburg graduated from high school at the age of 15. She attended Cornell University, where she met Martin Ginsburg. "What made Marty so overwhelmingly attractive to me was that he cared that I had a brain," she said.

A month after graduating, she and Ginsburg married, and they moved to Oklahoma, where he was stationed in the Army Reserve. She worked for the Social Security Administration, where she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child. 

Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of about 500 men. She would go on to transfer to Columbia Law School, where she'd become the first woman to be on two major law reviews. She earned her law degree in 1959.   

Despite tying for first in her class, Ginsburg found finding work as an attorney difficult. The disqualifying factor? That she was a woman. She was rejected for a clerkship position in 1960, despite a strong recommendation from Professor Albert Martin Sacks, who would go on to become dean of Harvard Law School. But Ginsburg did eventually find work later that year clerking for Judge Edmund Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

From 1961 to 1963, she worked as a research associate and then associate direct of the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure. She became a professor at Rutgers Law School in 1963 and remained there until 1971. She taught at Columbia from 1972 to 1980. All the while, Ginsburg pushed forward in the fight for equality. In 1970 she co-founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the U.S. to focus exclusively on women's rights.

She co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972. One year later, she became the Project's general counsel. Ginsburg was strategic in her fight, targeting specific discriminatory statutes rather than attempting to tackle the issue of discrimination based on gender as a whole. She won five of the six gender discrimination cases she argued before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, building on each successive victory.

Advocates and legal scholars credit Ginsburg for making significant legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. "She became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights — the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak," Ginsburg's good friend, the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, would later say of Ginsburg's body of work.

She was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980. 

Ginsburg filled the seat on the U.S. Supreme Court vacated by retiring Justice Byron White. She was recommended to Clinton by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. At the time, she was viewed as a moderate. Ginsburg was the second ever female and first ever Jewish female justice in the history of the Supreme court. She was the only Jewish justice since Justice Abe Fortas resigned in 1969 and eventually became the longest-serving Jewish justice ever. 

Standing all of 5-foot-1, Ginsburg did not cut an imposing figure, but she quickly established that she was not to be underestimated. She rode horses into her 70s, went parasailing and worked out often. And her indomitability extended to her place on the court. As the court veered right, Ginsburg dissented more often and more assertively. She called on Congress to pass legislation that would override a court decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear drastically limiting back-pay for victims of employment discrimination. The resulting legislation would go on to be the first bill passed in 2009 after President Barack Obama took office.

In 2010, Ginsburg lost her husband of 56 years to cancer. She didn't remain off the bench for long, knowing full well Marty, as he was affectionately known, would want it that way. 

She was critical of Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. She told CNN that he "is a faker" and said he had "gotten away with not turning over his tax returns." She later said she regretted making the comments and said she would be more “circumspect” in the future. Trump responded that “her mind is shot” and said she resign. She did not. 

Her fiery dissents, progressive votes and unwavering support for women's rights issues earned her the nickname the "Notorious R.B.G." She was met with raucous applause at the many speaking events she partook in across the country, where she'd discuss her view of the law and her experiences through life. 

Ginsburg battled cancer five times. She most recently announced in early 2020 a biopsy revealed lesions on her liver, but said in a statement that chemotherapy was yielding "positive results" and she was remaining active. 

"I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam," she said in a statement in July 2020. " I remain fully able to do that."

Ginsburg's death leaves open a spot on the Supreme Court that President Donald Trump will surely work to fill. Senate Republicans have vowed to try to fill a vacancy before Trump's first term is through, and their fight to confirm such a nomination will sure to bring about a battle of epic proportions. 

Earlier this month, Trump announced a list of 20 potential nominees to the Supreme Court should there be a vacancy. Among them was U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and U.S. Josh Hawley of Missouri. 

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a statement on Ginsburg's passing, saying, "The Senate and the nation mourn the sudden passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the conclusion of her extraordinary American life."
In the same statement, he spoke of Ginsburg potential replacement in the Supreme Court. 

"In the last midterm election before Justice Scalia's death in 2016, Americans elected a Republican Senate majority because we pledged to check and balance the last days of a lame-duck president's second term. We kept our promise. Since the 1880s, no Senate has confirmed an opposite-party president's Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

"By contrast, Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary. Once again, we will keep our promise. 

"President Trump's nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate," his statement concluded. 

As news of Ginsburg's passing spread, tributes poured in from both sides of the ideological aisle.

"The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a tremendous loss to our country. She was an extraordinary champion of justice and equal rights, and will be remembered as one of the great justices in modern American history," U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter. 

"One of the most beautiful and interesting modern public friendships was that between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her ideological opposite Antonin Scalia. They both loved opera, law and the U.S.A. I always loved their relationship. Let this part of their legacy be an example to us all," Meghan McCain wrote. 

"We're going to spend a lot of time talking about it between now and November," New Yorker Staff Writer and Chief Legal Analyst for CNN Jeffrey Toobin said on the network. "Today... the right thing to do is to talk about what a giant this very tiny woman was."

"She has been a beacon of justice during her long and remarkable career," former President Jimmy Carter said in a statement. "I was proud to have appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980."

"She dedicated many of her 87 remarkable years to the pursuit of justice and equality, and she inspired more than one generation of women and girls," Former President George W. Bush said. "Justice Ginsburg loved our country and the law. Laura and I are so fortunate to have known this smart and humorous trailblazer, and we send our condolences to the Ginsburg family."