As a woman and a lawyer, it is hard for me to put into words what I owe to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I can think of no other human, past or present, who better personifies what we who became lawyers to make the world a better place aspire to be.
The word I see most often used to describe her is tireless, and tireless she was. Pause for a moment to consider that she was 87 when she passed away last month. Now think for a moment about what most 87 year olds you know are doing or even capable of? To her dying day, RBG was entirely devoted to the ideals she believed in and she never stopped working and fighting.
Because essentially her entire tenure on the court was spent in the minority, many of her most impactful accomplishments came while she was still a practicing lawyer. She conceptualized and founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU in the 1970s and went on to systematically chip away at gender discrimination through discreet victories in the courts. During this period, she argued six cases before the Supreme Court, more than most lawyers can hope for in a lifetime. She won five.
Many of the discriminatory practices Ginsburg challenged as a lawyer are almost unthinkable now thanks in large part to the work she did to transform not just the law, but society’s thinking about the role of women in society. She successfully challenged laws that provided less benefits to spouses of female service members than those of their male counterparts, provided for involuntary sterilization, set different drinking ages for men and women, and made jury service for women voluntary.
Once on the Supreme Court, she became a sort of national conscience, often writing impassioned dissents when she could not find the votes to carry a case from her conservative colleagues. At times she would read these dissents from the bench, an uncommon practice that brought attention to the ways in which the majority often stood in the way of progress.
In at least one case, this method of vocal dissent led congress to implement the position she advocated. In 2007, she dissented from the majority opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear, that made it difficult for women to bring suit for compensation discrimination. Her dissent spurred the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act a year later.
In addition to her amazing work on gender discrimination issues, RBG was also a fierce ally to the LGBTQ community, to the disabled, and to those who sought to expand voting rights during her time on the bench.
Any tribute to this great woman, would be remiss to not mention the void she leaves and the cynical and hypocritical way in which her seat will likely be filled by Donald Trump. Much will and has been written about that elsewhere, so I will simply leave you with this thought and a piece that makes the point better than I could have. Despite all of the great work highlighted above, it is an absurd and bizarre feature of our democracy that the death of a single individual is likely to so greatly impact our society. This overreliance on the Supreme Court is fundamentally undemocratic and something that I hope we will pay greater attention to in the coming years.
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