Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies of cancer at age 87

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WASHINGTON — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who rose from a modest Brooklyn upbringing to become a famed women’s rights litigator, Supreme Court justice and unexpected pop culture celebrity, died from complications of pancreatic cancer Friday. She was 87.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a Supreme Court 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.”

Ginsburg struggled with cancer repeatedly during her life. In 1999, she was treated for rectal and colon cancer. In 2009, she underwent surgery to remove a small pancreatic cancer. On Dec. 21, 2018, doctors removed cancerous growths from her left lung. She also underwent heart surgery in 2014. And in August 2019 she underwent radiation therapy after the discovery of a cancerous tumor on her pancreas.

In July 2020, she revealed she had been undergoing chemotherapy since May to treat a recurrence of cancer.

“There was a senator, I think it was after my pancreatic cancer, who announced with great glee that I was going to be dead within six months,” Ginsburg told NPR. “That senator, whose name I have forgotten, is now himself dead, and I am very much alive.”

Ginsburg’s passing gives President Donald Trump a third opportunity to place a justice on the Supreme Court and transform the federal judiciary — possibly more than any president in the last half century.

There’s a chance Trump would nominate his first female justice to the Supreme Court, but that nominee is certain to be far more conservative than Ginsburg, a federal judge and ACLU lawyer whom President Bill Clinton selected to replace the retiring Justice Byron White in 1993.

Ginsburg first made her mark in the 1970s, challenging laws and norms dictating that a woman’s place was in the home and a man’s place was in the workforce. As a lawyer, she litigated or contributed to more than 60 cases dealing with sex-based discrimination, including a dozen that reached the Supreme Court.

Short in stature and known for her careful, halting manner of speaking, Ginsburg nonetheless became one of the most successful civil rights litigators of the last century. As historian Jane Sherron De Hart wrote in a 2018 biography of Ginsburg, “She showed Americans with intellectual rigor and precision that women’s rights are human rights.”

But her career was just getting started. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to a seat for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, just the second woman to sit on that bench. Serving on a court that has long groomed judges for the Supreme Court, Ginsburg established herself as a consensus builder, making friends with conservative judges like Antonin Scalia.

Ginsburg was seen as so moderate that, when the Clinton administration started vetting her for the Supreme Court, some liberals and feminist leaders balked in supporting her nomination.

Yet Clinton, politically flexible in his own way, seemed to delight in selecting a nominee who, he asserted, could not be labeled liberal or conservative. “She has proved herself too thoughtful for those labels,” he said, in nominating Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. She was confirmed 96-3 and became the second woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

A quarter-century later, it is hard to imagine Ginsburg being viewed as anything other than the liberal conscience of the nation’s highest judicial body. As the Supreme Court edged steadily to the right with appointments by Presidents George W. Bush and Trump, Ginsburg’s dissents grew more forceful. She regularly called out her conservative colleagues for inconsistently applying their self-proclaimed principles of “federalism,” or deference to state governance.

But she also worked to build consensus on several landmark cases, including those that furthered her vision of a gender-neutral society.

One of these was the court’s 7-1 decision to nullify the male-only admission policy at Virginia Military Institute, the last U.S. public university to exclude women. With that 1996 ruling, the court effectively struck down any law that, as Ginsburg wrote in her opinion, “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother, Celia, died of cancer just before Ruth turned 17, and left a lasting influence. In a 2016 book, “My Own Words,” Ginsburg recalled that her mother “made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to ‘be independent,’ able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.”

Growing up amid the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, Ginsburg was taught to embrace the Hebrew dictum of tikkun olam, or “repair the world.” She attended Cornell University, where the Russian author and literature professor Vladimir Nabokov “changed the way I read and the way I write,” she later recalled. It was also at Cornell that she met her future husband, Marty Ginsburg, who became a loving and supportive partner, helping to advance his wife’s professional ambitions.

“He was so secure about himself, he never regarded me as any kind of threat to his ego,” Ginsburg later said of her husband, whom she wed in 1954. “On the contrary, he took great pride in being married to someone he considered very able.”

Like other women of her era, Ginsburg confronted near-daily sexism and institutional bias. At Harvard Law School, she was a mother with a newborn daughter and one of nine women in a class of 552 students. In her first teaching position, at Rutgers, she delayed informing the university she was pregnant with the couple’s second child, out of fear she would lose her position.

Ginsburg would later say she “never had the slightest intention of becoming an expert on discrimination law,” but a combination of circumstance and life experiences led her there. In 1972, the ACLU launched the Women’s Rights Project and appointed Ginsburg, then a law professor at Columbia University, as its first director. The project’s goal was to pursue a series of cases that would convince the Supreme Court that sex discrimination existed, and that it violated the Constitution.

Ginsburg studied the success of Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights litigator and future Supreme Court justice, in devising her legal strategy. She sought out cases that would not only survive court scrutiny but offer mass appeal. One of these was the benefits ordeal endured by a U.S. Air Force lieutenant, Sharron Frontiero.

Frontiero, stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, applied for housing and medical benefits for her husband, Joseph, whom she claimed as a “dependent.” While servicemen then could automatically claim their wives as dependents, servicewomen were required to prove their husbands needed them for more than half their support. Joseph did not qualify under this rule, prompting Frontiero to sue.

The case made it to the Supreme Court, where Ginsburg prepared a 71-page brief that laid out the long history of discrimination against women and eventually wound up in “Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States.” Ginsburg and lawyer Joseph L. Levin Jr. argued the case before the court, which ultimately ruled 8-1 in favor of Frontiero.

While the 1973 ruling didn’t go as far as Ginsburg had hoped, it made clear that the U.S. government could not have a double standard on providing benefits to family members, on the basis of sex.

In pursuing gender bias cases, Ginsburg also represented men. In 1975, she won a 9-0 Supreme Court decision in favor of Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower who had been denied Social Security survivors benefits, which at the time extend only to widows.

It was one of several rulings that allowed men and women to reverse their traditional roles, such as Marty Ginsburg had done when he assumed many of the family’s domestic duties. The two Ginsburgs were married for 56 years until 2010, when Martin, a law professor at Georgetown University, died of cancer.

At the Supreme Court, Ginsburg had long been known as part of the court’s liberal wing, gaining particular notice in in 2000 when she dissented in the case of Bush v. Gore, a 5-4 decision that opened the way for George W. Bush to become president.

Ginsburg concluded by saying “I dissent,” leaving out the traditional word “respectfully.”

As the nation became more politically polarized in the 2000s and 2010s, Ginsburg became a celebrity, winning praise from Democrats as she sided with five other justices to uphold a key part of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which many Republicans were eager to repeal.

A few days later, she joined four other justices in a ruling that made same sex marriage legal nationwide.

Ginsburg’s celebrity went beyond political circles. It had its real beginnings after 2013, when she was dubbed “Notorious RBG” following her blistering dissent to a majority court opinion rolling back voting-rights protections.

But 2018 was clearly her breakout year. She was the focus of two high-profile movies, the documentary “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex,” in which she is played by the actress Felicity Jones. RBG swag was in high demand, including numerous biographies, children’s books, a workout book, bobble-head dolls and action figures.

In 2019, she said at a University of Chicago appearance reported by Bloomberg Law that the “Notorious RBG” came about when a New York University Law School student posted her dissent in the voting rights case.

The student was steering her anger into a more positive light, Ginsburg said.

“People wanted something positive, something hopeful,” Ginsburg said. “And so that is how the ‘Notorious RBG’ was born.”

She smiled. “I must say, sometimes it can be a little overbearing when everyone wants to take my picture though I’m 86 years old,” Ginsburg said.

Despite the RBG mythology of recent years, she previously had a roller-coaster relationship with the women’s movement, especially after her centrist years on the U.S. Appeals Court. Part of that mistrust grew out of her views on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 high court decision that blocked states from criminalizing access to abortion. Although Ginsburg supported abortion rights, she hoped the court would settle the issue based on the equal protection afforded women, as opposed to privacy rights, the basis of Roe v. Wade.

In a 1984 lecture, she called Roe v. Wade a “storm center,” and questioned the scope and sweep of the decision. The court, she said, “ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”

Some liberals also distrusted Ginsburg for her close relationship with Scalia, an ideological opposite, but a fellow opera lover with whom she spent many New Year’s Eves. “We are two people who are quite different in their core beliefs, but who respect each other’s character and ability,” she said in a 2007 interview.

Ginsburg warmed to Scalia partly because of her stated belief that Supreme Court jurists should be collegial, respectful of differing views and above the fray of partisan politics.

But in her latter years, she struggled to stay out of that fray herself.

“He is a faker,” Ginsburg said of presidential candidate Donald Trump in July of 2016, during the heat of the campaign. “He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego.”

After the Supreme Court justice was criticized for these remarks, which prompted Trump to call for her resignation, Ginsburg expressed regret.

“Judges should avoid commenting on a candidate for public office,” she wrote in a brief statement issued by the court. “In the future I will be more circumspect.”


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