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An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Famous Women—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jan 8, 2019 by

Every once in a while a number of movies come out of Hollywood recognizing the accomplishments of some individual. Currently, there are two movies ( On the Basis of Sex and “RBG” ) each describing the life and work of Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  Below is an interview about the life and achievements of this Supreme Court Justice.

1.Professor Elder, how many women have actually made it to the Supreme Court?  And what have been some of their accomplishments?

At this point in time, four women have served as associate justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. As we have seen in a preceding chapter, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court justice when she took the oath of office in 1981. Ginsburg joined her on the court 12 years later.

After O’Connor retired in 2006, Ginsburg served as the only female Supreme Court justice until President Barack Obama appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elizabeth Kagan to the bench during his first term in office. Although she suffered fractured ribs and received a diagnosis of cancer in the fall of 2018, at the age of 85 she has given no indication that she plans to retire from the court anytime soon.

2. Ruth Bader Ginsburg: where was she born and educated, and what seems to be some outstanding factors or variables that contributed to her success in life?

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 15, 1933. Her only sister died in 1934, and as a result her mother focused a great deal of attention on her from that point on. Known as either Joan or Kiki (a nickname given her by her mother because she had frequently kicked in the womb) during her first few years, she began going by Ruth after starting school because her class had a number of other girls named Joan in it.

Ruth’s mother pushed her to excel, hoping that her daughter could become a high school History teacher. Ruth attended Brooklyn’s James Madison High School, an institution that has produced three United States senators—Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, and Norm Coleman.

Upon graduation, Ruth attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she earned Phi Beta Kappa honors on her way to a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government in 1954. She had met Martin Ginsburg while attending Cornell, and married him after graduation. Two years later, she applied for admission into the law school at Harvard, and became one of only 9 women (out of an incoming class of 500) that Harvard accepted that year. When her husband took a position in New York, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia’s law school.

She received her Juris Doctor degree in 1959, having tied for highest honors.

3. Who appointed her to the Supreme Court, and why was she selected?

When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, Supreme Court Associate Justice Byron White (interestingly, the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1937) announced his retirement. Clinton thought that the Supreme Court needed more diversity, and carefully listened to recommendations that would help him achieve his goal. One such recommendation came in a round-about manner from an unlikely source: Orin Hatch, a Republican senator from Utah.

He told Janet Reno, Clinton’s attorney general, that he thought highly of a female sitting on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia named Ruther Bader Ginsburg. While serving on that court, Ginsburg had earned a reputation as a moderate, having worked amicably with her conservative fellow judge (and future US Supreme Court colleague) Antonin Scalia. Prior to her service on the Court of Appeals, Ginsburg had successfully argued a number of cases before the US Supreme Court, further enhancing her viability as a candidate for the vacancy created by White’s retirement.

Finally, the Supreme Court had no Jewish justice when Clinton became president. Suitably impressed with her candidacy, Clinton nominated her in June of 1993, and the US Senate confirmed her in August of that year by a vote of 96-3.

4. How long has she served on the Supreme Court, and what issues has she faced?

In the 25 years that Ginsburg has served as a justice, the US Supreme Court has adjudicated many important cases. Gun control, campaign finance, and the recount in Florida during the 2000 presidential election immediate come to mind, just to name a few. Because justices with a conservative point of view outnumbered Ginsburg and her fellow liberal colleagues during that time period, however, she has had few opportunities to write majority opinions. The cases that she has written the court’s opinion for range from ordering the Virginia Military Institute to admit female cadets to ruling that states cannot commit mentally disabled Americans to institutions without them representing a threat to the community.

But clearly, her most famous written opinion came in the case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius. In this decision, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. Although the future of this act is unclear at this moment in time, it seems certain that the major provisions of the ACA could withstand an appeal to the Supreme Court based on her forceful written opinion.

5. What have I neglected to ask about this famous women’s contributions to our society, our legal system and culture? 

Because of her defense of causes that many individuals in the entertainment business espouse, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a cultural hero to them. Indeed, in a nod to a famous individual from Rap music, she is often referred to as “The Notorious RBG.” While many justices on the Supreme Court have become well known, none have ever earned a nickname associated with such a culturally hip individual. It is safe to say that when she leaves the Supreme Court, it will be quite a while before any other justices achieves that type of fame.

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