Features Editor, Olivia Bybel, looks back on the incredible legacy of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, recounting her landmark Supreme Court cases, and inspiring words.
“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday the 18th of September. She left behind both her seat on the bench of the Supreme Court and a powerful legacy of fighting for the rights and freedoms of women and other marginilized groups in America. As an American woman myself, I have looked up to Justice Ginsburg for her strength, her intelligence, and her tenacity in breaking glass ceilings and paving the way for others to follow her. Her passing is a great loss to the United States, and has created a ripple of fear for American citizens. The future of the Supreme Court, and our rights as Americans is uncertain. The Notorious RBG, as she is nicknamed, gave us so much, and alongside fear, I feel gratitude for the freedoms I enjoy today because of her.
For non-Americans, and indeed many Americans, the Supreme Court’s place in government can be a confusing one. Justice Ginsburg was only the second woman to have a seat, after she was appointed by president Bill Clinton. The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary of the nation. It has appellate jursidaction over any and all federal and state court cases that involve a point of federal law, upholding the U.S. Constituion and ensuring that federal and state law abide by it. Ginsburg served for 27 years on the supreme court, becoming a key member of the liberal wing therein, and gaining popularity mainly from her dissents.
Before her appointment to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was a distinguished attorney and professor of law, co-founding the American Civil Liberty Union’s Women’s Rights Project. As the director of this project, she appeared before the Supreme Court six times. She is credited to have expanded women’s rights under the law using the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Consitution. She targeted laws that differentiated on gender, and often argued for male plaintiffs, demonstrating to the court that gender discrimination harmed men, and not just women.
Ginsburg’s position as a supreme court justice is what she is most known for, and where some of her most influential decisions were made. Court cases which she wrote the majority, or concurred on, ensured some of the liberties that Americans still enjoy today. Justice Ginsburg ruled on many Supreme Court cases during her time on the bench, but there are some that stand out as landmark cases that changed the precedent, and the nation.
United States v. Virginia, 1996
Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for this case. It would become a notable case in the women’s rights movement, specifically pertaining to university admissions. It challenged policy from the Virginia Military Insitute that prevented women from being admitted to the university. The state of Virginia argued that women were not fit for the Virginia Military Insitute’s rigorous training. Ginsburg wrote, “Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature-equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” The last all male public undergraduate college opened to women because of this case.
Olmstead v. L.C., 1999
This case revolved around the rights of people with mental disabilities to live in their communities. Two women, who were voluntarily admitted into psychiatric care in a state run hospital in Georgia, were held in the hospital for years in isolation after the finish of their treatment. The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia had violated the ‘Intergration Mandate’ which is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ginsburg wrote in the majority opinion, “States are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”
Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015
The ruling on this case was a landmark moment for same-sex couples, and the rights of LGBTQ+ Americans. Multiple same-sex couples sued their own states over marriage bans, and failure to recognize legal marriages from other states. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of legalising same-sex marriage, granting couples the right to marry in all 50 states. Ginsburg’s vote helped to make this important decision, and her outspoken support and oral arguments are thought to have influenced public opinion.
Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016
The supreme court case considered Texas’s Omnibus Abortion Bill, or H.B.2, which imposed strict regulations on abortion clinics. The bill was seemingly created to deter women from obtaining abortions. Ginsburg was in the majority, in a 5-3 vote, to strike down the bill. She commented, “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners…at great risk to their health and safety. So long as this Court adheres to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection.”
Ginsburg is perhaps most famous for her dissents, of which she said, “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way.’ But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
Bush v. Gore, 2000
Bush v. Gore changed the course of American history directly. The case concerned the 2000 presidential election, specifically in the state of Florida, where the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore was highly contested. After Bush’s campaign filed an emergency application to stop the Florida Supreme Court mandate to recount the ballots manually, the case landed in the Supreme Court. The court granted Bush’s application, some say effectively handing him the election. Ginsburg famously dissented, writing in her opinion “I dissent” rather than traditionally including “respectfully.’ She made it clear that she disagreed with the court’s decision, and its favoring of Bush.
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 2007
In this case, Lily Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, for gender discrimination. She had discovered that the company had been paying her less than her male counterparts, and argued that the pay disparity was due to her gender, and thus was a violation of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In response, Goodyear cited the clause that requires discrimination complaints to be filed with 180 days of violation, meaning Ledbetter could only legally sue for 180 days before her complaint instead of the entirety of her time at the company. The court ruled 5-4 in favor of Goodyear. Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion, and translated the official document, reading it publicly from the bench to ensure that the gender wage gap recieved the attention it deserved. She said “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination” After encouraging congress to amend the clause that decided this case, they did. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was signed in 2009 by President Obama, and is the first bill he signed as president.
Shelby County v. Holder, 2013
This Supreme Court ruling is famous for ‘gutting’ the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act, aiming to bar racial discrimination in voting, included special requirements for parts of the U.S. that had a record of suppressing minority voters. Section 5 of the act, required states such as Alabama, Texas, and Arizona to receive approval from the attorney general and a three judge panel in Washington D.C, before making changes to the voting requirements of their state. This was known as ‘preclearance.’
Shelby County or Alabama challenged the constitutionality of the act, and it was brought before the Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that regulations were outdated, and it was unconstitutional for congress to have control over state elections. Ginsburg disagreed with this decision, and was one of the 4 dissenting votes. She wrote in her dissent, ““Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes, is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Since this ruling in 2013, some states have enacted changes in their voting requirements, with some making it more difficult for minority groups to vote.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the notable rulings of the Supreme Court while Ruth Bader Ginsburg was on the bench. It is inspiring to look at the life of Justice Ginsburg, and the effect that one woman can have on the history, culture, and laws of a nation. She spent her life fighting for what she believed in, and excelling. Her legacy, written into law, will continue to protect the rights of Americans, and lay a foundation for the next generation to build on.