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Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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Quartz Obsession — Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Card 1
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the bench of the highest US court, died on Sept. 18, 2020 from pancreatic cancer complications. She was 87. This Obsession originally ran in May 2020, and we’re resending it today in remembrance.
US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a physically tiny intellectual giant. She stands only 5 feet 1 inch (1.5 m) tall. Yet this small, Jewish woman from New York’s Lower East Side has superhuman drive and abilities.
Ginsburg defies the odds to become one of the world’s most powerful jurists and a cultural icon. But she manages to maintain the humor and youthful curiosity known in Zen Buddhism as “beginner’s mind.” At 87, Ginsburg is still pulling all-nighters to write Supreme Court opinions, and she’s ever-eager to ask the first question at oral arguments.
Other justices write well. All of them are smart. But Ginsburg is downright artistic. She seemed to see no boundary between form and function, style and substance, or law and life. She’s become an international icon, a feminist hero revered by young and old, an intellectual symbol with pop star status who appeals to the hip and stodgy alike, and is admired by people of all ideologies. The Notorious RBG may well be the only judge in the world known by a hip-hop moniker and likely the sole jurist to inspire books, documentaries, operas, workouts, feature films, and imitators who dress like her for Halloween. She is so widely admired that she joked in February at a Washington, DC event that she could collect an award every week if she accepted all the honors she was offered. We hope she would agree that being the subject of a Quartz Weekly Obsession qualifies as one of those accolades.
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2: Times a week RBG does her famously challenging workout
4: Bouts of cancer she has survived since joining the Supreme Court
9: Women in Ginsburg’s Harvard Law School starting class of 500 in 1956
50%: Agreement rate with Clarence Thomas in 2018, the justice RBG has least often agreed with during the court’s last two full terms
87 years: Age as of March, making Ginsburg the oldest justice on the bench right now
96: Senators who voted to confirm Ginsburg to the high court in 1993 (only three voted no, all conservative Republicans: Jesse Helms, Don Nickles, and Robert C. Smith)
$7.9 million: Box office gross for the 2018 documentary RBG in its first month of release
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By her own account, one of RBG’s favorite dissents came in the 2007 case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tires and Rubber. Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at Goodyear was paid less than men she trained for the same position. It took years for Ledbetter to realize the gender discrimination was happening, but the high court ruled that her suit came too late, not within 180 days of the pay decision she was challenging.
Ginsburg argued otherwise, laying out the sneaky and pernicious way pay discrimination occurs. In her view, the nature of this discrimination is regular, occurring with every paycheck, meaning a claim arising within 180 days of her latest pay period was timely. RBG dismissed the majority’s reasoning, saying the cases they relied upon “hold no sway” because they involve a single, discrete discriminatory event, whereas pay discrimination is necessarily regular, cumulative, and difficult to discover.
She concluded, “Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court…the Legislature may act to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of [the law].” Lawmakers listened. In Ginsburg’s chambers there is a framed copy of the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by president Barack Obama.
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“For some reason, people repeatedly have asked RBG when she thought there would be enough women on the court. The question is asinine, her answer effective: ‘When there are nine.’”
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There are no cameras allowed in Supreme Court hearings, which means very few people get to see RBG and the other justices at work. Art Lien has been sketching the high court since before Ginsburg was appointed and last year talked to Quartz about what it’s like to serve as the public’s eye on the highest tribunal in the land.
“Every year it gets a little harder to sketch Justice Ginsburg. When she’s on the bench I can only see the top half of her head, maybe three quarters when she leans forward,” Lien, whose images are featured here, tells Quartz. “Too bad because she is a lot of fun to draw.”
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1933: Joan Ruth Bader is born in New York to a Jewish furrier and a garment worker.
1940: She visits the iconic NYC deli Russ & Daughters in the Lower East Side—the name dedicated to women in business lights a feminist spark.
1950: She attends Cornell University, fulfilling her mother’s thwarted dream of going to college.
1954: Ruth Bader marries her college sweetheart Martin Ginsburg,”the only boy who cared she had a brain.”
1956: The Ginsburgs attend Harvard Law School, where Ruth is subject to “indignities.”
1959: RBG graduates top of her class from Columbia Law but can’t get a SCOTUS clerkship.
1971: RBG successfully argues her first SCOTUS case as a lawyer for the ACLU and the high court recognizes, for the first time, that the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination based on gender, in addition to race.
1980: President Jimmy Carter appoints Ginsburg to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit.
1993: Bill Clinton nominates Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. The Senate Judiciary Committee questioning her during confirmation hearings is made up of 16 men and two recently added women.
1996: Ginsburg pens the landmark decision holding that the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy unconstitutionally violates the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause.
2017: By now notorious, RBG visits VMI—with an 11% female enrollment at the time—to discuss the historic ruling that allowed women to attend and is “greeted like a rock star” by thousands.
2020: RBG dissents in a case about mail-in ballots amid the coronavirus crisis, arguing that Americans shouldn’t have to choose between their right to vote and protecting their health.
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Always dressed to the nines, Ginsburg’s sartorial sense serves on the bench, too, despite the obligatory black robe. This wasn’t always the case. Ginsburg recalls that when she first joined the high court, she commiserated with O’Connor about “the age-old problem of what to wear.” She didn’t know of anyone making judicial robes designed for women and ended up donning a plain black affair.
“You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie,” Ginsburg has explained. “So … O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman. So I have many, many collars.”
Her judicial robes are now bespoke, and made with her elaborate collars in mind. Also known as jabots, they operate on many levels. Yes, they are dope, yet they are also substantive. The Notorious RBG’s jabots let you know where she stands before she’s seated. Lacey crocheted affairs in white wave like a peace flag, foretelling a majority opinion, while a metallic necklace resembling weaponry suggests displeasure, and a punk rock studded creation that has yielded countless imitations says war. Or, more precisely, “I respectfully dissent.”
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Speaking to a Georgetown University Law Center audience about the Equal Rights Amendment in Feb. 2020, RBG said she hasn’t cooked a meal since 1980 when her daughter said dad was the superior chef.
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Ginsburg would like the US Constitution to explicitly articulate that women and men are equal under the law, which it does not do. In this discussion at the Aspen Institute in 2017 she explains why passing the Equal Rights Amendment would be a critical symbolic victory.
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