Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday night at age 87 from cancer, was one of the most prominent Jewish American public figures of the last half century. She was a feminist icon and unofficial leader for the court’s group of liberal justices.
Her death, prior to November’s presidential election, could dramatically impact the upcoming vote. President Donald Trump will now be able to nominate a conservative justice to take Ginsburg’s place, and if that nominee is confirmed by the Senate, it will cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the court and take away Chief Justice John Roberts’ power as the “swing” vote between the court’s liberals and conservatives.
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, her death will have profound implications for American politics, and also for the future of the American Jewish community.
Roberts said in a statement on Friday that Ginsburg was a "jurist of historic stature." According to news reports in the United States, Ginsburg dictated before her death a short statement to one of her granddaughters, in which she said she wishes not to be replaced on the court before a new president is sworn into office.
Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933, to Jewish parents. Her father immigrated to the United States from Ukraine and her mother was born in New York to parents who had immigrated from Austria. After finishing high school in the city, she received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in upstate New York, which was where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg.
Ginsburg got her law degree at Harvard University, where she was one of only nine women among a class of some 500 students. She later finished her studies at Columbia University, after her lawyer husband received a job offer in New York. In 1963, she started working as a law professor at Rutgers University, New Jersey, where she worked for almost a decade.
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Her work began to have national influence in the early 1970s, when she started and led a project on women’s rights at the American Civil Liberties Union. Through a series of legal challenges that went all the way up the court system to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg succeeded in securing several historical legal precedents that promoted the cause of equality between men and women.
In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia – which is considered the second most important court in the land after the Supreme Court, and handles many appeals that eventually make it to the top court. She sat on the Court of Appeals for 13 years, until her nomination to the Supreme Court by then-President Bill Clinton in 1993.
Ginsburg was only the second woman in U.S. history to be nominated for such a position (following Sandra Day O’Connor, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan a decade earlier). She was also the first Jewish candidate to sit on the court since the resignation of Justice Abe Fortas in 1969. Her nomination was approved by the Senate, with 96 senators voting in favor and only three opposing. She took the oath of office on August 10, 1993.
During her 27 years on the court, Ginsburg gained millions of fans and admirers around the world, and eventually became a cultural icon in the United States, the subject of movies, museum exhibitions, and books for adults and children alike. A 2019 film about her early professional life, “On the Basis of Sex,” was a modest box office hit, with actress Felicity Jones portraying the jurist. But it was the 2018 documentary about Ginsburg, “RBG,” that created a real artistic buzz, including an Academy Award nomination for best documentary.
Over the years, Ginsburg established herself as the de facto leader of the Supreme Court’s liberal wing. Together with justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, Ginsburg had to rely on ad hoc cooperation and compromises with one of the five conservative justices in order to create a majority in favor of their judicial philosophy in important cases.
The reality of being part of a minority on the court led Ginsburg to adopt a pragmatic approach, at the same time continuing to fight for her ideals and liberal-leaning interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Ginsburg once stated that if she had the powers of a “queen,” she would have written every Supreme Court decision in which she was part of the majority in her own exact words. The reality, though, was that in order to receive the necessary five votes for a majority, she and her liberal colleagues often had to compromise.
Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia (1996), in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute had to end its policy of not accepting women. She wrote the dissenting opinion in the landmark case Bush v. Gore (2000), which effectively handed George W. Bush the presidency. Her dissenting opinion in the case Shelby County v. Holder (2010), in which the court’s conservative majority gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is often quoted by activists fighting to protect voting rights.
Throughout her years on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg developed a close personal friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, despite the fact that both of them were at opposite ends of the ideological and political spectrum: Ginsburg was seen as one of the most liberal justices in the court’s history, while Scalia was an archconservative.
The two served together on the Court of Appeals before their appointments to the Supreme Court, and bonded over their love of opera. Scalia once explained their friendship by saying: “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job.”
The admiration Ginsburg enjoyed in liberal and feminist circles was tempered by one criticism: that she didn’t retire from the Supreme Court when Barack Obama was still president and the Democrats had a majority in the Senate. Had she retired at any point between 2008 and 2014, it is certain Ginsburg would have been replaced by another liberal justice; by choosing to remain until her death, she gave Trump an opportunity to replace her with a conservative justice who could, over time, undo much of the progress on women’s rights she had devoted her life to achieving.
Reverence and admiration
Ginsburg grew up in a secular Jewish home, although her family did attend holiday prayers at a Conservative synagogue in her neighborhood. She attended Jewish summer camps as a teenager. Her late husband was also Jewish, and Judaism remained an important part of her identity throughout her life. (Marty Ginsburg died of cancer in 2010, at age 78.) The American Jewish community mostly treated her with reverence and admiration. Events in which she spoke at Jewish institutions were invariably sold out.
In 2017, she made a surprise appearance at Washington’s historic Sixth & I synagogue during Rosh Hashanah services. She spoke about how her Jewish identity and the Jewish texts she read growing up helped her develop a sense of empathy for other minority groups. “If you’re a member of a minority group, particularly a minority group that has been picked on, you have empathy for others who are similarly situated,” she said.
“The Jewish religion is an ethical religion. That is, we’re taught to do right, to love mercy, do justice not because there’s gonna be any reward in heaven or punishment in hell. We live righteously because that’s how people should live and not anticipating any award in the hereafter,” Ginsburg told the audience.
In 2018, she received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Genesis Foundation (aka the Jewish Nobels), receiving a rapturous reception when she collected the award in Israel.
Following Ginsburg’s death, there are now two Jewish justices still serving on the court: Kagan and Breyer. In 1995, Ginsburg and Breyer convinced the court’s chief justice at the time, William Rehnquist, not to hear arguments that had been scheduled for Yom Kippur, because it would force observant Jewish lawyers to choose between their work and their religion.
Speaking at a prestigious law event at Stanford University in 2017, Ginsburg was asked how she would like to be remembered in 100 years’ time. “That I was a judge who worked as hard as she could to the best of her ability – to do the job right,” she replied.
Ginsburg is survived by two children and two grandchildren.
Reuters contributed to this report.