Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933, in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, the second daughter of Celia (née Amster) and Nathan Bader, who lived in the Flatbush neighborhood. Her father was a Jewish emigrant from Odessa, Ukraine, then in the Russian Empire, and her mother was born in New York to Austrian Jewish parents. The Baders' older daughter Marylin died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was 14 months old. The family called Joan Ruth "Kiki,” a nickname Marylin had given her for being "a kicky baby.” When "Kiki" started school, Celia discovered that her daughter's class had several other girls named Joan, so Celia suggested that the teacher call her daughter "Ruth" to avoid confusion. Although not devout, the Bader family belonged to East Midwood Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue, where Ruth learned tenets of the Jewish faith and gained familiarity with the Hebrew language. At age 13, Ruth acted as the "camp rabbi" at a Jewish summer program at Camp Che-Na-Wah in Minerva, New York.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (/ˈbeɪdər ˈɡɪnzbɜːrɡ/; born Joan Ruth Bader, March 15, 1933 – September 18, 2020) was an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton on June 14, 1993 and had served since August 10, 1993. Ginsburg became the second of four female justices to be confirmed to the Court after Sandra Day O'Connor, the two others being Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, both of whom are still serving in 2020. Following O'Connor's retirement in 2006 and until Sotomayor joined the Court in 2009, she was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, which were noted by legal observers and in popular culture. She is generally viewed as belonging to the liberal wing of the Court. Ginsburg has authored notable majority opinions, including United States v. Virginia (1996), Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), and Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. (2000).
Although Bader was raised in a Jewish home, she became non-observant when she was excluded from the minyan for mourners after the death of her mother. There was a "house full of women,” but Bader, as a woman, was excluded. Orthodox Judaism requires that 10 Jewish men (over the age of 13) be present for a minyan, and women are excluded from being counted. She notes that her attitude might be different, following her attendance at a bat mitzvah ceremony in a more liberal stream of Judaism where the rabbi and cantor were both women. In March 2015, Ginsburg and Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt released "The Heroic and Visionary Women of Passover", an essay highlighting the roles of five key women in the saga: "These women had a vision leading out of the darkness shrouding their world. They were women of action, prepared to defy authority to make their vision a reality bathed in the light of the day." In addition, she decorates her chambers with an artist's rendering of the Hebrew phrase from Deuteronomy, "Zedek, zedek, tirdof", ("Justice, justice shall you pursue") as a reminder of her heritage and professional responsibility.
Celia took an active role in her daughter's education, often taking her to the library. Celia had been a good student in her youth, graduating from high school at age 15, yet she could not further her own education because her family instead chose to send her brother to college. Celia wanted her daughter to get more education, which she thought would allow Ruth to become a high school history teacher. Ruth attended James Madison High School, whose law program later dedicated a courtroom in her honor. Celia struggled with cancer throughout Ruth's high school years and died the day before Ruth's high school graduation.
Bader attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she was a member of Alpha Epsilon Phi. While at Cornell, she met Martin D. Ginsburg at age 17. She graduated from Cornell with a bachelor of arts degree in government on June 23, 1954. She was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the highest-ranking female student in her graduating class. Bader married Ginsburg a month after her graduation from Cornell. She and Martin moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he was stationed as a Reserve Officers' Training Corps officer in the Army Reserve after his call-up to active duty. At age 21, she worked for the Social Security Administration office in Oklahoma, where she was demoted after becoming pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to a daughter in 1955.
In the fall of 1956, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of about 500 men. The Dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited all of the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, "Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?" When her husband took a job in New York City, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she earned her law degree at Columbia and tied for first in her class.
At the start of her legal career, Ginsburg encountered difficulty in finding employment. In 1960, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected Ginsburg for a clerkship position due to her gender. She was rejected despite a strong recommendation from Albert Martin Sacks, who was a professor and later dean of Harvard Law School. Columbia Law Professor Gerald Gunther also pushed for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York to hire Ginsburg as a law clerk, threatening to never recommend another Columbia student to Palmieri if he did not give Ginsburg the opportunity and guaranteeing to provide the judge with a replacement clerk should Ginsburg not succeed. Later that year, Ginsburg began her clerkship for Judge Palmieri, and she held the position for two years.
Her first position as a professor was at Rutgers Law School in 1963. The appointment was not without its drawbacks; Ginsburg was informed she would be paid less than her male colleagues because she had a husband with a well-paid job. At the time Ginsburg entered academia, she was one of fewer than 20 female law professors in the United States. She was a professor of law, mainly civil procedure, at Rutgers from 1963 to 1972, receiving tenure from the school in 1969.
In 1970, she co-founded the Women's Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the U.S. to focus exclusively on women's rights. From 1972 to 1980, she taught at Columbia, where she became the first tenured woman and co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination. She also spent a year as a fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University from 1977 to 1978.
Ginsburg volunteered to write the brief for Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971), in which the Supreme Court extended the protections of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to women. In 1972, she argued before the 10th Circuit in Moritz v. Commissioner, on behalf of a man who'd been denied a caregiver deduction because of his gender. As amicus she argued in Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), which challenged a statute making it more difficult for a female service member (Frontiero) to claim an increased housing allowance for her husband than for a male service member seeking the same allowance for his wife. Ginsburg argued that the statute treated women as inferior, and the Supreme Court ruled 8–1 in Frontiero's favor. The court again ruled in Ginsburg's favor in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975), where Ginsburg represented a widower denied survivor benefits under Social Security, which permitted widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children. She argued that the statute discriminated against male survivors of workers by denying them the same protection as their female counterparts.
In 1972, Ginsburg co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and, in 1973, she became the Project's general counsel. The Women's Rights Project and related ACLU projects participated in over 300 gender discrimination cases by 1974. As the director of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five. Rather than asking the court to end all gender discrimination at once, Ginsburg charted a strategic course, taking aim at specific discriminatory statutes and building on each successive victory. She chose plaintiffs carefully, at times picking male plaintiffs to demonstrate that gender discrimination was harmful to both men and women. The laws Ginsburg targeted included those that on the surface appeared beneficial to women, but in fact reinforced the notion that women needed to be dependent on men. Her strategic advocacy extended to word choice, favoring the use of "gender" instead of "sex,” after her secretary suggested the word "sex" would serve as a distraction to judges. She attained a reputation as a skilled oral advocate and her work led directly to the end of gender discrimination in many areas of the law.
Ginsburg filed an amicus brief and sat with counsel at oral argument for Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976), which challenged an Oklahoma statute that set different minimum drinking ages for men and women. For the first time, the court imposed what is known as intermediate scrutiny on laws discriminating based on gender, a heightened standard of Constitutional review. Her last case as an attorney before the Supreme Court was in 1978 Duren v. Missouri, 439 U.S. 357 (1979), which challenged the validity of voluntary jury duty for women, on the ground that participation in jury duty was a citizen's vital governmental service and therefore should not be optional for women. At the end of Ginsburg's oral argument, then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist asked Ginsburg, "You won't settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?" Ginsburg said she considered responding, "We won't settle for tokens,” but instead opted not to answer the question.
Ginsburg spent a considerable part of her legal career as an advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women's rights, winning multiple arguments before the Supreme Court. She advocated as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union and was a member of its board of directors and one of its general counsels in the 1970s. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg has received attention in American popular culture for her fiery liberal dissents and refusal to step down; she has been dubbed "The Notorious R.B.G.", a play on the name of the rapper known as "The Notorious B.I.G.", in reference to her notable dissents.
Legal scholars and advocates credit Ginsburg's body of work with making significant legal advances for women under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Taken together, Ginsburg's legal victories discouraged legislatures from treating women and men differently under the law. She continued to work on the ACLU's Women's Rights Project until her appointment to the Federal Bench in 1980. Later, colleague Antonin Scalia praised Ginsburg's skills as an advocate. "She became the leading (and very successful) litigator on behalf of women's rights—the Thurgood Marshall of that cause, so to speak.” This was a comparison that had first been made by former Solicitor General Erwin Griswold who was also her former professor and dean at Harvard Law School, in a speech given in 1985.
Ginsburg was nominated by President Jimmy Carter on April 14, 1980, to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated by Judge Harold Leventhal after his death. She was confirmed by the United States Senate on June 18, 1980, and received her commission later that day. Her service terminated on August 9, 1993, due to her elevation to the United States Supreme Court. During her time as a judge on the DC Circuit, Ginsburg often found consensus with her colleagues including conservatives Robert H. Bork and Antonin Scalia. Her time on the court earned her a reputation as a "cautious jurist" and a moderate. David S. Tatel replaced her after Ginsburg's appointment to the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg's name was later invoked during the confirmation process of John Roberts. Ginsburg herself was not the first nominee to avoid answering certain specific questions before Congress, and as a young attorney in 1981 Roberts had advised against Supreme Court nominees' giving specific responses. Nevertheless, some conservative commentators and Senators invoked the phrase "Ginsburg precedent" to defend his demurrers. In a September 28, 2005, speech at Wake Forest University, Ginsburg said that Roberts' refusal to answer questions during his Senate confirmation hearings on some cases was "unquestionably right.”
Following her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg deviated from the traditional American court dress by wearing a French robe d'avocat, as opposed to the typical judicial robe worn in the United States. The French robe differs from the American with its exposed buttons, open sleeves, standing collar, and white rabat. On the left shoulder of the robe are two buttons intended for the fastening of an epitoge, traditionally worn by French lawyers. In later years, Ginsburg would shift from the traditionally uniform white French rabat and begin wearing more varied and fanciful jabots, necklaces, and other forms of neckwear. Some time later, fellow Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and other women on the court would follow Ginsburg's lead and begin wearing the French robe d'avocat as well.
President Bill Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on June 14, 1993, to fill the seat vacated by retiring Justice Byron White. Ginsburg was recommended to Clinton by then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, after a suggestion by Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch. At the time of her nomination, Ginsburg was viewed as a moderate. Clinton was reportedly looking to increase the court's diversity, which Ginsburg did as the only Jewish justice since the 1969 resignation of Justice Abe Fortas. She was the second female and the first Jewish female justice of the Supreme Court. She eventually became the longest-serving Jewish justice ever. The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary rated Ginsburg as "well qualified,” its highest possible rating for a prospective justice.
At the same time, Ginsburg did answer questions about some potentially controversial issues. For instance, she affirmed her belief in a constitutional right to privacy and explained at some length her personal judicial philosophy and thoughts regarding gender equality. Ginsburg was more forthright in discussing her views on topics about which she had previously written. The United States Senate confirmed her by a 96 to 3 vote on August 3, 1993, she received her commission on August 5, 1993, and she took her judicial oath on August 10, 1993.
At his request, Ginsburg administered Vice President Al Gore's oath of office to a second term during the second inauguration of Bill Clinton on January 20, 1997. She was the third woman to administer an inaugural oath of office. Ginsburg is believed to be the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same-sex wedding, performing the August 31, 2013, ceremony of Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and John Roberts, a government economist. Earlier that summer, the court had bolstered same-sex marriage rights in two separate cases. Ginsburg believed the issue being settled led same-sex couples to ask her to officiate as there was no longer the fear of compromising rulings on the issue.
In 1999, Ginsburg was diagnosed with colon cancer; she underwent surgery that was followed by chemotherapy and radiation therapy. During the process, she did not miss a day on the bench. Ginsburg was physically weakened by the cancer treatment, and she began working with a personal trainer. Since 1999, Bryant Johnson, a former Army reservist attached to the Special Forces, has trained Ginsburg twice weekly in the justices-only gym at the Supreme Court. Ginsburg saw her physical fitness improve since her first bout with cancer; she was able to complete 20 push-ups in a session before her 80th birthday.
In 2002, Ginsburg was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Ginsburg has been named one of 100 Most Powerful Women (2009), one of Glamour magazine's Women of the Year 2012, and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people (2015). She has been awarded honorary Doctor of Laws degrees by Willamette University (2009), Princeton University (2010), and Harvard University (2011).
Ginsburg has been referred to as a "pop culture icon". Ginsburg's profile began to rise after O'Connor's retirement in 2006 left Ginsburg as the only serving female justice. Her increasingly fiery dissents, particularly in Shelby County v. Holder 570 U.S. 2 (2013), led to the creation of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr and Internet meme comparing the justice to rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The creator of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, then-law student Shana Knizhnik, teamed up with MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon to turn the blog into a book titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Released in October 2015, the book became a New York Times bestseller. In 2015, Ginsburg and Scalia, known for their shared love of opera, were fictionalized in Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera by Derrick Wang.
The retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 2006 left Ginsburg as the only woman on the court. Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times referred to the subsequent 2006–2007 term of the court as "the time when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it.” The term also marked the first time in Ginsburg's history with the court where she read multiple dissents from the bench, a tactic employed to signal more intense disagreement with the majority.
Ginsburg dissented in the court's decision on Ledbetter v. Goodyear, 550 U.S. 618 (2007), a case where plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming pay discrimination based on her gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 5–4 decision, the majority interpreted the statute of limitations as starting to run at the time of every pay period, even if a woman did not know she was being paid less than her male colleague until later. Ginsburg found the result absurd, pointing out that women often do not know they are being paid less, and therefore it was unfair to expect them to act at the time of each paycheck. She also called attention to the reluctance women may have in male-dominated fields to making waves by filing lawsuits over small amounts, choosing instead to wait until the disparity accumulates. As part of her dissent, Ginsburg called on Congress to amend Title VII to undo the court's decision with legislation. Following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims, became law. Ginsburg was credited with helping to inspire the law.
Nearly a decade after her first bout with cancer, she again underwent surgery on February 5, 2009, this time for pancreatic cancer. Ginsburg had a tumor that was discovered at an early stage. She was released from a New York City hospital on February 13 and returned to the bench when the Supreme Court went back into session on February 23, 2009. After experiencing discomfort while exercising in the Supreme Court gym in November 2014, she had a stent placed in her right coronary artery.
When John Paul Stevens retired in 2010, Ginsburg became the oldest justice on the court at age 77. Despite rumors that she would retire because of advancing age, poor health, and the death of her husband, she denied she was planning to step down. In an August 2010 interview, Ginsburg stated that her work on the court was helping her cope with the death of her husband. She also expressed a wish to emulate Justice Louis Brandeis' service of nearly 23 years, which she achieved in April 2016. She stated she has a new "model" to emulate in former colleague Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired at age 90 after nearly 35 years on the bench.
After the birth of their daughter, her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During this period, Ginsburg attended class and took notes for both of them, typed her husband's dictated papers and cared for their daughter and her sick husband—all while making the Harvard Law Review. They celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary on June 23, 2010. Martin Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic cancer on June 27, 2010. They spoke publicly of being in a shared earning/shared parenting marriage including in a speech Martin Ginsburg wrote and had intended to give before his death that Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered posthumously.
In January 2012, Ginsburg went to Egypt for four days of discussions with judges, law school faculty, law school students, and legal experts. In an interview with Al Hayat TV, she stated that the first requirement of a new constitution should be that it would "safeguard basic fundamental human rights like our First Amendment". Asked if Egypt should model its new constitution on those of other nations, she said Egypt should be "aided by all Constitution-writing that has gone on since the end of World War II", she cited the United States Constitution and Constitution of South Africa as documents she might look to if drafting a new constitution. She said the U.S. was fortunate to have a constitution authored by "very wise" men but pointed out that in the 1780s, no women were able to participate directly in the process, and slavery still existed in the U.S.
In 2013, a painting featuring the four female justices to have served as justices on the Supreme Court (Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) was unveiled at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
Ginsburg has a collection of lace jabots from around the world. She stated in 2014 that she has a particular jabot that she wears when issuing her dissents (black with gold embroidery and faceted stones) as well as another she wears when issuing majority opinions (crocheted yellow and cream with crystals), which was a gift from her law clerks. Her favorite jabot (woven with white beads) is from Cape Town, South Africa.
During three separate interviews that were conducted in July 2016, Ginsburg criticized presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, telling The New York Times and the Associated Press that she did not want to think about the possibility of a Trump presidency. She joked that she might consider moving to New Zealand. She later apologized for commenting on the presumptive Republican nominee, calling her remarks "ill advised".
Ginsburg's first book, My Own Words published by Simon & Schuster, was released October 4, 2016. The book debuted on the New York Times Best Seller List for hardcover nonfiction at No. 12. While promoting her book in October 2016 during an interview with Katie Couric, Ginsburg responded to a question about Colin Kaepernick choosing not to stand for the national anthem at sporting events calling the protest "really dumb". She later apologized for her criticism calling her earlier comments "inappropriately dismissive and harsh" and noting she had not been familiar with the incident and should have declined to respond to the question.
In 2018, Ginsburg expressed her support for the #MeToo movement, which encourages women to speak up about their experiences with sexual harassment. She told an audience, "It's about time. For so long women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it, but now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment and that's a good thing." She also reflected on her own experiences with gender discrimination and sexual harassment, including a time when a chemistry professor at Cornell unsuccessfully attempted to trade her exam answers for sex.
Since 2015, Ginsburg has been portrayed by Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live. McKinnon has repeatedly reprised the role, including during a Weekend Update sketch that aired from the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The segments typically feature McKinnon (as Ginsburg) lobbing insults she calls "Ginsburns" and doing a celebratory dance. Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen created a documentary about Ginsburg, titled RBG, for CNN Films, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. In the film Deadpool 2 (2018), a photo of her is shown as Deadpool considers her for his X-Force, a team of superheroes. Another film, On the Basis of Sex, focusing on Ginsburg's career struggles fighting for equal rights, was released later in 2018; its screenplay was named to the Black List of best unproduced screenplays of 2014. English actress Felicity Jones portrays Ginsburg in the film, with Armie Hammer as her husband Marty. Ginsburg herself has a cameo in the film. The seventh season of the sitcom New Girl features a three-year-old character named Ruth Bader Schmidt, named after Ginsburg. A Lego mini-figurine of Ginsburg is shown within a brief segment of The Lego Movie 2. Ginsburg gave her blessing for the cameo, as well as to have the mini-figurine produced as part of the Lego toy sets following the film's release in February 2019. Also in 2019, Samuel Adams released a limited-edition beer called When There Are Nine, referring to Ginsburg's well-known reply to the question about when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court.
Ginsburg's next hospitalization would help her detect another round of cancer. On November 8, 2018, Ginsburg fell in her office at the Supreme Court, fracturing three ribs, for which she was hospitalized. An outpouring of public support followed. Although the day after her fall, Ginsburg's nephew revealed she had already returned to official judicial work after a day of observation, a CT scan of her ribs following her November 8 fall showed cancerous nodules in her lungs. On December 21, Ginsburg underwent a left-lung lobectomy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to remove the nodules. For the first time since joining the Court more than 25 years earlier, Ginsburg missed oral argument on January 7, 2019 while she recuperated. She returned to the Supreme Court on February 15 to participate in a private conference with other justices in her first appearance at the court since her cancer surgery in December 2018.
The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles created an exhibition focusing on Ginsburg's life and career exhibition in 2019 called Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Months later in August 2019, the Supreme Court announced that Ginsburg had recently completed three weeks of focused radiation treatment to ablate a tumor found in her pancreas over the summer. By January 2020, Ginsburg was cancer-free. By May 2020, Ginsburg was once again receiving treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She reiterated her position that she "would remain a member of the court as long as I can do the job full steam," adding that she remained fully able to do so.
Ginsberg was the recipient of the 2019 US $1 million Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. Awarded annually, the Berggruen Institute stated it recognizes "thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world," noting Ginsberg as "a lifelong trailblazer for human rights and gender equality." Ginsburg has received numerous awards including the LBJ Foundation’s Liberty & Justice for All Award, the World Peace and Liberty Award from international legal groups, and a lifetime achievement award from Diane von Furstenberg’s foundation all in 2020 alone.
During the presidency of Barack Obama, some progressive attorneys and activists called for Ginsburg to retire so that Obama would be able to appoint a like-minded successor, particularly while the Democratic Party held control of the U.S. Senate. They pointed to Ginsburg's age and past health issues as factors making her longevity uncertain. Ginsburg rejected these pleas. She affirmed her wish to remain a justice as long as she was mentally sharp enough to perform her duties. Moreover, Ginsburg opined that the political climate would prevent Obama from appointing a jurist like herself. As of April 2020, Ginsburg was the fourth-oldest serving Supreme Court Justice ever, at age 87.
She died in September 2020 of pancreatic cancer.