High court’s sec­ond fe­male jus­tice, who be­came known as the No­to­ri­ous RBG, showed a steely re­silience in the face of per­sonal loss and health prob­lems

Chicago Sun-Times - - FRONT PAGE - BY MARK SHER­MAN

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg moved slowly.

When court was in ses­sion, she of­ten had her head down, some­times lead­ing vis­i­tors to think she was asleep. She once ac­knowl­edged that she did oc­ca­sion­ally nod off. She once con­fessed to doz­ing dur­ing a State of the Union.

But it was a mis­take to equate her gait and gaze with frailty, for Gins­burg showed over and over a steely re­silience in the face of per­sonal loss and se­ri­ous health prob­lems that made the diminu­tive New Yorker a tow­er­ing women’s rights cham­pion and force­ful pres­ence at the court over 27 years.

She made few con­ces­sions to age and re­cur­rent health prob­lems, work­ing reg­u­larly with a per­sonal trainer. She never missed any time in court be­fore the age of 85, and then only fol­low­ing surgery in De­cem­ber 2018 for lung cancer.

Gins­burg died Fri­day of com­pli­ca­tions from metastatic pan­cre­atic cancer at her home in Washington at 87, the court said.

Late in her court ten­ure, she be­came a so­cial me­dia icon, the No­to­ri­ous RBG, a name coined by a law stu­dent who ad­mired Gins­burg’s dis­sent in a case cut­ting back on a key civil rights law.

The jus­tice was at first taken aback. There was noth­ing “no­to­ri­ous” about this woman of rec­ti­tude who wore a va­ri­ety of lace col­lars on the bench and of­ten ap­peared in public in el­e­gant gloves.

But when her law clerks and grand­chil­dren ex­plained the con­nec­tion to an­other Brook­lynite, the rap­per The No­to­ri­ous B.I.G., her skep­ti­cism turned to de­light. “In the word the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion uses, it’s awe­some,” Gins­burg said in 2016, shortly be­fore she turned 83.

In 2018, Gins­burg was the sub­ject of a doc­u­men­tary and a fea­ture film “On the Ba­sis of Sex,” in which the ac­tor Felic­ity Jones por­trayed her.

In her fi­nal years on the court, Gins­burg was the un­ques­tioned leader of the lib­eral jus­tices, as out­spo­ken in dis­sent as she was cau­tious in ear­lier years.

Crit­i­ciz­ing the court’s con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity for get­ting rid of a key part of the land­mark Vot­ing Rights Act in 2013, Gins­burg wrote that it was like “throw­ing away your um­brella in a rain­storm be­cause you are not get­ting wet.”

Her stature on the court and the death of her hus­band in 2010 prob­a­bly con­trib­uted to Gins­burg’s de­ci­sion to re­main on the bench be­yond the goal she ini­tially set for her­self, to match Jus­tice Louis Bran­deis’ 22 years on the court and his re­tire­ment at the age of 82.

Gins­burg had spe­cial af­fec­tion for Bran­deis, the first Jew named to the high court. She was the court’s sec­ond woman and its sixth Jewish jus­tice. In time she was joined by two other Jews, Stephen Breyer and Elena Ka­gan, and two other women, Ka­gan and So­nia So­tomayor.

Both developmen­ts were per­haps un­think­able when Gins­burg grad­u­ated from law school in 1959 and faced the triple bo­gey of look­ing for work as a woman, a mother and a Jew.

Forty years later, she noted that re­li­gion had be­come ir­rel­e­vant in the selec­tion of high­court jus­tices and that gen­der was head­ing in the same di­rec­tion, though when asked how many women would be enough for the high court, Gins­burg replied with­out hes­i­ta­tion, “Nine.”

She could take some credit for equal­ity of the sexes in the law. In the 1970s, she ar­gued six key cases be­fore the court when she was an ar­chi­tect of the women’s rights move­ment. She won five.

“Ruth Bader Gins­burg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the Amer­i­can his­tory books,” Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton said in 1993 when he an­nounced her ap­point­ment. “She has al­ready done that.”

Her time as a jus­tice was marked by tri­umphs for equal­ity for women, as in her opin­ion for the court order­ing the Vir­ginia Military In­sti­tute to ac­cept women or give up its state fund­ing.

There were set­backs, too. She dis­sented force­fully from the court’s de­ci­sion in 2007 to up­hold a na­tion­wide ban on an abor­tion pro­ce­dure that op­po­nents call par­tial-birth abor­tion. The “alarm­ing” rul­ing, Gins­burg said, “can­not be un­der­stood as any­thing other than an ef­fort to chip away at a right de­clared again and again by this court — and with in­creas­ing com­pre­hen­sion of its cen­tral­ity to women’s lives.”

Gins­burg once said that she had not en­tered the law as a cham­pion of equal rights. “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job bet­ter than any other,” she wrote. “I have no tal­ent in

the arts, but I do write fairly well and an­a­lyze prob­lems clearly.”

Be­sides civil rights, Gins­burg took an in­ter­est in cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment, vot­ing re­peat­edly to limit its use. Dur­ing her ten­ure, the court de­clared it un­con­sti­tu­tional for states to ex­e­cute the in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­abled and killers younger than 18.

She voted most of­ten with the other lib­eral-lean­ing jus­tices, fel­low Clin­ton ap­pointee Breyer and two Re­pub­li­can ap­pointees, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, then later with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s two ap­pointees, So­tomayor and Ka­gan.

In the most di­vi­sive of cases, Gins­burg was of­ten at odds with the court’s more con­ser­va­tive mem­bers. Yet she was per­son­ally clos­est on the court to Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, her ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­site.

She once ex­plained that she took Scalia’s some­times bit­ing dis­sents as a chal­lenge to be met. “How am I go­ing to an­swer this in a way that’s a real put­down?” she said. Scalia died in 2016.

As for her own dis­sents, Gins­burg said that some were aimed at sway­ing the opin­ions of her fel­low judges while oth­ers were “an ap­peal to the in­tel­li­gence of an­other day” in the hopes that they would pro­vide guid­ance to fu­ture courts.

“Hope springs eter­nal,” she said in 2007, “and when I am writ­ing a dis­sent, I’m al­ways hop­ing for that fifth or sixth vote — even though I’m dis­ap­pointed more of­ten than not.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brook­lyn in 1933, the sec­ond daugh­ter in a mid­dle-class fam­ily. Her older sis­ter, who gave her the life­long nick­name “Kiki,” died at age 6, so Gins­burg grew up in Brook­lyn’s Flat­bush sec­tion as an only child. Her dream, she has said, was to be an opera singer.

Her mother, Celia Bader, died of cancer the night be­fore Gins­burg, then 17, was to grad­u­ate from high school. Celia Bader never at­tended col­lege but worked as a book­keeper. In a public tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary about Jewish Amer­i­cans, Gins­burg said, “What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween a book­keeper in New York’s Gar­ment District and a U.S. Supreme Court jus­tice? One gen­er­a­tion.”

She first gained fame as a lit­i­ga­tor for the Women’s Rights Pro­ject of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union. She had worked on the le­gal team that per­suaded the high court to rule for the first time ever in 1970 that a state had vi­o­lated the Con­sti­tu­tion by deny­ing women equal treat­ment.

At ar­gu­ment ses­sions in the or­nate court­room, Gins­burg was known for dig­ging deep into case records and for be­ing a stick­ler for fol­low­ing the rules.

She was more com­fort­able than most with long si­lences, and in the sev­eral in­ter­views Gins­burg granted this re­porter in her of­fice at the court, it was dif­fi­cult, but re­ward­ing, to re­sist the nat­u­ral ten­dency to fill those si­lences with an­other ques­tion. The most in­ter­est­ing things she said typ­i­cally fol­lowed long pauses.

Ap­pear­ing at a law school fo­rum in 2008, she noted with re­lief that there was no re­tire­ment age for U.S. judges. “We hold our of­fices dur­ing good be­hav­ior,” Gins­burg said, cit­ing lan­guage from the Con­sti­tu­tion. “So all of my col­leagues be­have very well.”

She mar­ried her hus­band, Martin, in 1954, the year she grad­u­ated from Cor­nell Univer­sity. She at­tended Har­vard Univer­sity’s law school but trans­ferred to Columbia Univer­sity when her hus­band took a law job in New York.

Gins­burg had grad­u­ated at the top of her Columbia Law School class but could not find a law firm will­ing to hire her. She later said she’d had more than her share of “mazel” — the He­brew word for luck — to help her along in life.

“Sup­pose there had been a Wall Street firm in­ter­ested in hir­ing me? What would I be to­day?” she in­toned in 2007. “A retired part­ner.”

Martin Gins­burg went on to be­come a prom­i­nent tax at­tor­ney and law pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Univer­sity. Gins­burg was a law pro­fes­sor at Rut­gers Univer­sity and Columbia, then later a fed­eral ap­peals court judge for 13 years. Theirs was an equal part­ner­ship in which Martin Gins­burg was the undis­puted mas­ter of the kitchen, of­ten bak­ing cakes for the jus­tices’ birth­days.

In 1999, Gins­burg had surgery for colon cancer and re­ceived ra­di­a­tion and chemo­ther­apy. She had surgery again in 2009 af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with pan­cre­atic cancer and in De­cem­ber 2018 to re­move can­cer­ous growths on her left lung.

In 2019, doctors treated Gins­burg with ra­di­a­tion for a tu­mor on her pan­creas. She main­tained an ac­tive sched­ule even dur­ing the three weeks of ra­di­a­tion. When she re­vealed a re­cur­rence of her cancer in July 2020, this time with le­sions on her liver that were treated with chemo­ther­apy ev­ery two weeks, Gins­burg said she re­mained “fully able” to con­tinue as a jus­tice.

She is sur­vived by two chil­dren, Jane and James, and sev­eral grand­chil­dren.

Her de­ter­mi­na­tion was per­haps most ev­i­dent on the day the court met for the fi­nal time in June 2010. Her hus­band had died a day ear­lier, and her chil­dren told her their fa­ther would want her to go to work. The jus­tices filed into the court­room that Mon­day, and Gins­burg was there.




As­so­ciate Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg is seen in her cham­bers in 2014 at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.


Then-Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton poses with his nom­i­nee for the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Gins­burg, in 1993.


Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg laughs with her hus­band, Martin, in 2003 at Columbia Law School.


Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg ar­rives for then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­dress to a joint ses­sion of Congress in 2009.


Though ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­sites, Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg was close with fel­low Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia (bot­tom right).

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