The Life, Legacy, and Loss of ‘The Notorious R.B.G.’

Notorious (adjective): publicly or generally known, as for a particular trait. A word now forever linked to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg – not just for her trailblazing work on the nation’s highest court, but for her perseverance, fierce attitude, and willingness to push barriers in the fight for equality under the law. Standing at just five-foot-one and barely 100 pounds, she was a legal giant and force to be reckoned with. On Friday, September 18, 2020, at the age of 87, Justice Ginsburg lost her final battle to pancreatic cancer. As the country and legal community grieves this enormous loss, we must not forget to celebrate her life and continue her legacy.

LIFE. Born in 1933 into a family of Jewish immigrants, Justice Ginsburg grew up in a low-income, working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Ginsburg went to Cornell University for college and graduated first in her class. She attended Harvard Law School, and as one of only eight females in a class of 500 students, overcame the difficulties and challenges of a male dominated, hostile environment, while balancing life as a young mother, wife, and aspiring lawyer. In 1959 Justice Ginsburg graduated, first in her class, from Columbia Law School. After law school she clerked for a U.S. District Court Judge, was a professor at Rutger’s University Law School and Columbia Law School, and served as the director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In 1980 she was appointed to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and in 1993 President Bill Clinton selected her to the U.S. Supreme Court, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. She was only the second woman, and first Jewish woman, to serve as a member of our nation’s highest legal authority.

LEGACY. While she spent almost 30 years of her career issuing important majority opinions, and even more powerful dissenting ones, her most significant and transformative work occurred before she ever joined the Court. While serving as a lawyer and general counsel of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she personally argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the (then) all-male U.S. Supreme Court, winning five. Those victories struck down laws which discriminated based on gender for compensation of military members, considerations for jury service, and receipt of social security benefits and property tax exemptions. Ginsburg’s commitment to “equal justice under law” was not limited to issues of women’s rights or her time as a lawyer. After taking her seat on the bench, she wrote opinions in cases involving efforts to overcome America’s history of racial injustice (in affirmative action in public universities and through the Voting Rights Act) and joined opinions in cases extending equality norms to LGBTQ persons. As a jurist, Ginsburg saw vast numbers of American people being excluded from the American promise on the basis of race, sexual orientation or gender affiliation, and spent her career forcing the law to recognize and account for those people’s humanity and dignity.

LOSS. From the first moments of her life up until the last, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg overcame obstacles, exceeded expectations, broke barriers, and selflessly served. She changed the lives and futures of millions, and reminded us that “[t]he arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” only “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” We must carry on her commitment and continue to build on the legacy she left us.

Brilliant. Resilient. Victorious. Notorious. Rest in peace, RBG.

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