Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Friday marked an end of an era for feminists, as the second woman to sit on the high court was viewed internationally as a trailblazer for women’s rights and gender equality.
The liberal icon who became the first justice in modern times to become a pop culture sensation died at her home in Washington, D.C. on Friday surrounded by family after battling metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Justice Ginsburg was 87 years old and had served more than a quarter-century on the court.
“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic nature,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. 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 tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Before her passing, the justice reportedly told her granddaughter that her “most fervent wish” was for her seat not to be filled until there was a new president, recognizing the vacancy would become a politically charged issue just six weeks before Election Day.
But President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have already vowed to move forward with a replacement — no matter who is elected to the White House in November, setting up what could be the first Supreme Court confirmation to take place during a lame-duck session in modern political times.
The Brooklyn-born jurist’s fans and foes took to calling her the “Notorious RBG” because of her unabashedly liberal missions from the bench and her tendency to insert herself into partisan politics in interviews and speeches beyond the walls of the Supreme Court.
Her departure from the court creates a third opening for Mr. Trump to fill, which is more than any president since Ronald Reagan.
Justice Ginsburg earned her reputation through carefully argued and fiercely written opinions — with her greatest hits usually coming in dissents prodding her colleagues to take a more expansive view of personal liberty, women’s rights and government power.
They are the causes she cut her teeth on as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, where she defended women’s rights at a time before the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution began being applied to sex.
“She was probably the biggest driving force behind a very successful attempt to make equal protection to include gender,” said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice.
Her fame as a justice has been unprecedented, with an unmatched crossover appeal to people far beyond the legal world.
Hagiographic movies and documentaries drew significant audiences, and T-shirts and other knickknacks with her likeness are sold online. The American Bar Association Journal in 2018 found more than 1,000 results for RBG-related gear for sale on Etsy.com.
She also was included as a character, complete with robe and gavel, in “The Lego Movie 2,” alongside Batman and Superman in 2019.
Irin Carmon, a co-author of the book “Notorious RBG,” called Justice Ginsburg an “unapologetic feminist.”
“Justice Ginsburg is actually pretty amused by the ‘Notorious RBG’ phenomena,” she told Larry King in 2015. “What she has said the past about it is, ‘I can’t take credit for the Notorious RBG, but I like it and so do my grandchildren.’”
Her fans grew even more adoring, and her critics even more outraged, as Mr. Trump ran for the White House and then won four years ago.
During a 2016 CNN interview, she called Mr. Trump “a faker” and complained of his ego. She issued an apology the next day.
Months later she apologized again after criticizing professional football players who were kneeling for the national anthem, calling it “dumb and disrespectful.”
In 2018, as the confirmation process for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was devolving into a circus, she criticized the Senate and pointed out that even as an ACLU litigator, she was confirmed in 1993 on a 96-3 vote.
She was the second woman on the court, joining then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Two other women, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, have since joined.
Liberals find little to criticize Justice Ginsburg for, other than her decision not to retire during the eight years of President Obama’s tenure, when he might have named her replacement.
Conservatives view her as the chief spokeswoman for the “living Constitution” approach to legal reasoning, in which the founding document is seen as embodying principles that judges can apply according to modern understandings, rather than hard-and-fast rules to be followed until voters change them.
“The idea that there should be certain constitutional principles you follow, whether it leads to a result you like or don’t like — that doesn’t really occur to her,” Mr. Levey said.
Born Joan Ruth Bader in 1933 to an immigrant father from Ukraine and a mother who grew up in New York, she attended Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in her class.
Although a year behind her husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg in law school, she attended both his classes and her own, taking notes for him while he battled cancer.
After law school, her husband worked as a tax lawyer in New York, but she was rejected by several big law firms, despite graduating at the top of her class. She found work as a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
It was during her time teaching law students that she became involved with several gender-based discrimination cases, often seeking out men as plaintiffs to advance her fight for gender equality.
She joined the ACLU in 1972, where she started the women’s rights project and argued before the Supreme Court in 1973 on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero, who was demanding a housing allowance and other benefits that at the time were given only to men in the military.
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” Justice Ginsburg said in her 1973 argument before the court as an attorney, quoting 19th-century activist Sarah Grimke.
The court found the military’s benefits policy violated the Constitution.
As a justice on the high court, she authored the 1996 United States v. Virginia opinion, which struck down Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admission policy.
The 7-1 decision even won the backing of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was the late Justice Antonin Scalia, one of Justice Ginsburg’s close friends and fellow opera lover, who dissented from her opinion.
Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, called that opinion the “crowning moment for her career as a women’s rights advocate.”
“The fact that Chief Justice Rehnquist joined it … that must have been a very sweet victory for her to get his vote,” Ms. Shapiro said.
Yet Justice Ginsburg’s ferocity as a judge has shown more in her dissents.
Indeed, it was her angry opinion in a 2013 voting rights case, Shelby County, that gave rise to the “Notorious RBG” nickname.
The majority in the 5-4 ruling said voting discrimination still exists, but said the decades-old formula Congress used to force some states to undergo extra voting scrutiny was outdated and therefore unfair and needed to be updated or scrapped.
Justice Ginsburg said the court “errs egregiously” in wading into the fight, saying those decisions were rightly left to the political branches. Curiously, that was a barb frequently aimed at her jurisprudence.
She also gained fame for her dissent defending Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her employer Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. for pay discrimination.
The majority of the court held Ms. Ledbetter sued outside the statute of limitations, barring her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Justice Ginsburg sparked Congress to step in and address wage discrimination, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill signed into law by President Obama in January 2009.
Flags at the White House were lowered to half-staff in honor of Justice Ginsburg, whom White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called “a trailblazer for women.”
Justice Ginsburg is survived by her two children Jane and James Ginsburg, their spouses, her four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, as well as one great-grandchild. Martin Ginsburg, her husband, died in 2010.