Ginsburg was appointed in 1993 by President Bill Clinton and in recent years served as the most senior member of the court’s liberal wing, consistently delivering progressive votes on the most divisive social issues of the day, including abortion rights, same-sex marriage, voting rights, immigration, health care and affirmative action.
“She led an amazing life. What else can you say?” President Donald Trump said Friday evening upon hearing about her death. “She was an amazing woman whether you agree or not she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life.”
Ginsburg developed a rock star status and was dubbed the “Notorious R.B.G.” In speaking events across the country before liberal audiences, she was greeted with standing ovations as she spoke about her view of the law, her famed exercise routine and her often fiery dissents.
Ginsburg, who died on the eve of the Jewish new year, was surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, DC, the court said. A private interment service will be held at Arlington National Cemetery.
Ginsburg had suffered from five bouts of cancer, most recently a recurrence in early 2020 when a biopsy revealed lesions on her liver. She had said that chemotherapy was yielding “positive results” and that she was able to maintain an active daily routine.
“I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam,” she said in a statement in July 2020. “I remain fully able to do that.”
She told an audience in 2019 that she liked to keep busy even when she was fighting cancer. “I found each time that when I’m active, I’m much better than if I’m just lying about and feeling sorry for myself,” she said in New York at the Yale Club at an event hosted by Moment Magazine. Ginsburg told another audience that she thought she would serve until she was 90 years old.
Tiny in stature, she could write opinions that roared disapproval when she thought the majority had gone astray.
In 2011, by contrast, President Barack Obama singled out Ginsburg at a White House ceremony. “She’s one of my favorites,” he said, “I’ve got a soft spot for Justice Ginsburg.”
The vacancy gives Trump the opportunity to further solidify the conservative majority on the court and fill the seat of a woman who broke through the glass ceiling at a time when few women attended law school with a different justice who could steer the court to the right on social issues.
Ginsburg was well-known for the work she did before taking the bench, when she served as an advocate for the American Civil Liberties Union and became the architect of a legal strategy to bring cases to the courts that would ensure that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied to gender.
“I had the good fortune to be alive and a lawyer in the late 1960s when, for the first time in the history of the United States, it became possible to urge before courts, successfully, that society would benefit enormously if women were regarded as persons equal in stature to men,'” she said in a commencement speech in 2002.
Once she took the bench, Ginsburg had the reputation of a “judge’s judge” for the clarity of her opinions that gave straightforward guidance to the lower courts.
“The constitutional violation in this case is the categorical exclusion of women from an extraordinary educational opportunity afforded men,” she wrote in 1996.
Ginsburg faced discrimination herself when she graduated from law school in 1959 and could not find a clerkship.
No one was more surprised than Ginsburg of the status she gained with young women in her late 70s and early 80s. She was amused by the swag that appeared praising her work, including a “You Can’t have the Truth, Without Ruth” T-shirt as well as coffee mugs and bobbleheads. Some young women went as far as getting tattoos bearing her likeness. A Tumblr dubbed her the “Notorious R.B.G.” in reference to a rap star known as “Notorious B.I.G.” The name stuck. One artist set Ginsburg’s dissent in a religious liberty case to music.
“It makes absolute sense that Justice Ginsburg has become an idol for younger generations,” Justice Elena Kagan said at an event at the New York Bar Association in 2014. “Her impact on America and American law has been extraordinary.”
“As a litigator and then as a judge, she changed the face of American anti-discrimination law,” Kagan said. “She can take credit for making the law of this country work for women and in doing so she made possible my own career.”
Ginsburg, even after her fifth diagnosis of cancer, was working on a book with one of her former clerks, Amanda Tyler. It was based on her life on gender equality.
Dissents and strategy
Part of Ginsburg’s renown came from her fierce dissents in key cases, often involving civil rights or equal protection.
In 2007, the court heard a case concerning Lilly Ledbetter, who had worked as a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire plant in Alabama. Near the end of her career, Ledbetter discovered a pay disparity between her salary and the salaries of male co-workers. She filed a claim arguing she had received a discriminatorily low salary because of her sex, in violation of federal law. A majority of the court found against Ledbetter, ruling she had filed her complaints too late. Ginsburg wasn’t impressed with that reasoning.
“The court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination,” Ginsburg wrote, urging Congress to take up the issue, which it did in 2009.
In 2015, it was Ginsburg who led the liberal block of the court as it voted in favor of same-sex marriage with the critical fifth vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy wrote the opinion and it was joined by the liberals, who chose not to write separately. Ginsburg was likely behind that strategy and she said later that had she written the majority she might have put more emphasis on equal protection.
After the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, Ginsburg was the most senior of her liberal colleagues and she had the power to assign opinions when the chief justice was on the other side.
She assigned herself an angry dissent when the court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. She compared racial discrimination to a “vile infection” and said early attempts to protect against it were like “battling the Hydra.”
She also penned a partial dissent in a 2012 case concerning Obama’s health care law, disagreeing with the conservative justices that the individual mandate was not a valid exercise of Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause. She called the reasoning “crabbed” but was satisfied that Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the fifth vote to uphold the law under the taxing power.
Ginsburg puzzled some liberals with her criticisms of the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion — a case that was decided well before she took the bench. Although she said she felt like the result was right, she thought the Supreme Court should have limited itself to the Texas statute at hand instead of issuing a sweeping decision that created a target for opponents to abortion rights.
She was in dissent in 2007 when the majority upheld a federal ban on a procedure called “partial birth abortion.” She called the decision “alarming” and said that it “tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”
She voted with the majority, however, in 2016 when the court struck down a Texas abortion law that critics called one of the strictest nationwide.
In July, Ginsburg filed another fierce dissent when the conservative majority allowed the Trump administration to expand exemptions for employers who have religious or moral objections to complying with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
“Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” Ginsburg wrote, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She observed that the administration had said the new rules would cause thousands of women — “between 70,500 and 126,400 women of childbearing age,” she wrote — to lose coverage.
Friendship with Scalia
She was a life-long opera fan who appeared onstage in 2016 at the Kennedy Center for a non-speaking role in the Washington National Opera’s “The Daughter of the Regiment.”
At speaking events she often lamented that while she dreamed of being a great opera diva, she had been born with the limited range of a sparrow.
Her relationship with Scalia inspired Derrick Wang to compose a comic opera he titled “Scalia/Ginsburg” that was based on opinions penned by the two justices.
The actress Kate McKinnon also portrayed Ginsburg — wearing black robes and a trademark jabot — in a recurring “Saturday Night Live” skit responding to the news of the day.
Ginsburg suffered two bouts of cancer in 1999 and 2009 and received a stent implant in her heart but never missed a day of oral arguments. She was married to Martin Ginsburg, a noted tax attorney, for more than 50 years until his death in 2010 and they had two children.
“I would just like people to think of me as a judge who did the best she could with whatever limited talent I had,” Ginsburg said at an event at the University of California Hastings College of Law in 2011, “to keep our country true to what makes it a great nation and to make things a little better than they might have been if I hadn’t been there.”
This story has been updated.
Sarah Mucha and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.