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There will be plenty of time for the disagreements and posturing over who should be nominated, and when, to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the standard set by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2016 (a standard he’s already abandoned), consideration of a replacement should wait until after the American people have had their say about the presidency in the Nov. 3 election.
But, before any of that, Ginsburg, who died Friday at the age of 87, deserves to be recognized for her legacy not just as only the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court, but also for her decades of successful advocacy for women’s and civil rights.
“Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a statement on Friday. “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, who died after several battles with cancer, “changed the way the world is for American women,” longtime NPR court reporter Nina Totenberg wrote on Friday. “… she led the fight in the courts for gender equality. When she began her legal crusade, women were treated, by law, differently from men. Hundreds of state and federal laws restricted what women could do, barring them from jobs, rights and even from jury service. By the time she donned judicial robes, however, Ginsburg had worked a revolution.”
After graduating from Cornell University, Ginsburg moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where her new husband, Marty, served in the Army. The only job she could get was as a typist. She lost that job when she became pregnant.
When she enrolled in Harvard Law School two years later, a dean asked why she’d taken a spot that should go to a man. After she graduated from Columbia Law School, at the top of her class, she was recommended for a clerkship at the Supreme Court, but was not even interviewed.
In 1963, she was hired to teach law at Rutgers University. She hid her second pregnancy under large clothes to keep her job.
Ginsburg, the founding director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, then took on a series of cases challenging federal laws that were discriminatory to both men and women. She took this approach because she knew that she had to convince male judges that discrimination against women also hurt men, Tottenberg wrote.
Beginning in 1971, she won five of six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied not just to racial and ethnic minorities, but to women as well.
“I count myself enormously fortunate to be around when it was possible to move society to the place where it should be for the benefit of all of us,” she said, according to USA Today. “Everyone is the beneficiary of ending gender discrimination.”
Ginsburg brought this perspective, and her habit of sleeping little and working tirelessly, to the Supreme Court in 1993 after her nomination by President Bill Clinton.
One of the first opinions she authored was a 7-1 ruling ending the Virginia Military Institute’s 157-year run as an all-male institution.
In later years on the court, Ginsburg, the leader of the court’s liberal wing, became known for her sometimes stinging dissents to rulings authored by the court’s conservative wing. In 2013, she was highly critical of the chief justice and his conservative colleagues for a ruling that struck down a key element of the Voting Rights Act. The ruling opened the door to questionable election practices that federal courts have subsequently equated to voter suppression.
Despite their divergent judicial opinions, Ginsburg and the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia were great friends and even inspired an opera about their relationship, which was forged by a love of opera.
Ginsburg, a small woman known for wearing white collars on days that her dissenting rulings were released, leaves a lasting legacy from both her work as a lawyer who argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court and as an astute, and sometimes critical, member of the court.
“She leaves a country changed because of her life’s work, ”ACLU executive director Anthony Romero told USA Today on Friday.
Ginsburg died on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, cementing her legacy as a tzaddik, a person of righteousness. May her memory be a blessing.