Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a daughter of Brooklyn, a child of middle-class Jewish immigrants.
She attended James Madison High School, named after our fourth president, one of the principal authors of the Constitution.
A Virginian, Madison was a white male whose father gave him one of his slaves as a manservant to attend him when he went to Princeton. Yet, he crafted words that would protect the liberties of Americans for the ages.
RBG knew the pain and indignity of discrimination.
She was one of nine women in a class of 550 at Harvard Law School.
When the dean called upon her to justify why she was there taking the place of a man, the only answer she could muster was that she wanted to understand her husband’s work. Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, was going to become a lawyer.
A brilliant student and legal thinker, Justice Felix Frankfurter denied her a clerkship on the Supreme Court, and refused even to interview her for the position.
The government withdrew its offer of an entry-level civil service job when she disclosed she was pregnant.
When she wanted to teach law at prestigious NYU and Columbia, she was refused, and accepted a position at Rutgers Law School where she made a mark.
Her brilliance as a legal thinker eventually brought her to the attention of the appointing authority.
She went on the DC Circuit bench in 1980, and in 1993 scaled the heights to the Supreme Court.
She was the second woman after Sandra Day O’Connor to be seated on the Court. She would be followed by two more.
When asked, “When will there be enough [women on the Court]?” she said, “My answer is: “When there are nine.”
Her life’s experience convinced her that, contrary to the original understanding, the Constitution’s guaranty of “equal protection of the laws” outlawed discrimination, not just against blacks and other racial minorities, but against women as well.
Outmanned, usually 5-4, by a conservative majority, she did get to write the majority opinion in the case ordering Virginia Military Academy to admit women, and voted with the majority in cases outlawing capital punishment of juveniles and the mentally challenged.
In dissent, she was eloquent. She even made it a fashion statement by wearing a “dissenting collar” when she took the bench.
The collar, available at Banana Republic, was a dark, beaded number composed of long, metallic, finger-like projections, resembling a piece of medieval armor.
She famously said: “It helps sometimes to be a little deaf (in marriage and in) the good job I have now.” She thought that “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.”
She dissented in a case that permitted a faith-based company to refuse insurance coverage to women, who might seek to practice contraception — “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield,” she wrote — and from the decision eviscerating portions of the Voting Rights Act: “Just as buildings in California have a greater need to be earthquake proofed, places where there is greater racial polarization in voting have a greater need for prophylactic measures to prevent purposeful race discrimination.”
She left an indelible impression on the Court and upon the country.
Some will deify her, others will dismiss her as a “liberal.” But, even her harshest critics recognize her focus on the outcomes of cases, and how they would impact the lives and perspectives of those affected.
She understood that litigants are not cyphers, they are people.
At a 2018 lecture at New York Law School, she said: “I can tell you why I regard my colleagues in some ways as family.
“During my tenure, I have had two bouts with cancer. Both times, my colleagues rallied around me and made it possible to get through those trying times without missing a day in court.”
This wisp of a thing from Brooklyn, weighing in at about 100 pounds, with a huge legal brain, fought off her cancer with fierce determination.
Unequal to her last battle, she died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, of the terminal illness that claimed her husband and her mother.
She touched the lives of many people as she exemplified the American dream. Her inspiration will endure.
James D. Zirin, a former federal prosecutor, is the author of the book “Supremely Partisan — How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court.”
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