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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America. As a legal icon, her influence has extended far beyond the borders of the USA.

On 18th September 2020, It was announced that she had died due to complications with pancreatic cancer. Sadly, before her death, there are many that would not know who she was and the significant role she has played in the fight for equality.

Who was Justice Bader Ginsburg?

In short, she was a feminist pioneer, an activist for minority groups and she has left a trail blazing legacy in her wake.

In 1971, Justice Ginsburg graduated from University and began her legal career. In looking for her first job, she then found that many law firms were unwilling to hire her because she was female. This led to her cofounding the Union’s Women’s Right Project.

From this point, Justice Ginsburg led a pioneering career. Her legacy was born from her desire to fight against injustice. She argued before the Court in favour of striking down discriminatory laws including those that excluded females from jury duty. We have come a long way since then but that is in no small part due to the significant role played by Justice Ginsburg.

In 1993, she was appointed to the Supreme Court, becoming only the second female Supreme Court Justice in US history. Whilst relatively unknown when she first began, during the course of her career she became an icon for her progressive views and dissents.

The Legacy

The legacy of Justice Ginsburg can be seen the cases she was involved in during the course of her professional career.

The cases below only provide a snapshot of the role she played.

In Fronterio v Richardson,[i]  Justice Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court in a case which involved the husband of a female lieutenant who was denied dependents allowance. Under the statute, only the wives were considered dependents of their husbands, husbands were not dependents of their wives. In arguing her position to the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg used her platform to demonstrate the way females continued to face discrimination from laws first made in  the 19th Century. Supreme Court agreed that the laws were unconstitutional but decided to refrain from reviewing all statutes which classified citizens based on their gender.

In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld,[ii] a male widow was denied benefits. The same benefits that would have been offered to his wife had she been the surviving spouse. At appeal, Justice Ginsburg argued that it was a clear case of discrimination that a man could not access social security benefits on the same basis as a woman. It was her view that to do this would undermine generations and lifetimes of female contributions if they were not considered the same as their male counterparts. An argument that was ultimately successful.

Throughout her career, a similar theme appears as she fought against statutes that discriminated against gender.

In Craig v Boren,[iii] a state law restricted the strength of beer that could be sold to women. Justice Ginsburg assisted in this case. Unlike previous decisions, the Court recognised that any statute that classified citizens by their gender should be reviewed along with recognition that gender discrimination requires enhanced legal protections. If a law did this, the government was required to demonstrate and justify the purpose. This was a massive leap in such a short time frame.

Following her appointment to the Supreme Court, she became known for refusing to give up on her views and values.

One of the most notable cases, United States v Virginia,[iv]  involved the Virginia Military Institute which operated a male only policy. When challenged, they argued that the policy was ‘substantively comparable’ to a private liberal arts school for women. It was well know that VMI was a prestigious institute. At appeal, the case was successful. Justice Ginsburg wrote that you cannot limit anyone purely based on their gender. Women have the right ‘to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute the same as their counterpart.[v]

Often, her dissenting opinions were just as powerful as her majority views. The controversial case of Shelby County v Holder,[vi] allowed for States to enact changes to voting procedure, which included removing the protections offered to minority groups. As a consequence, several states have brought in legislation that makes voting more difficult for black and ethnic groups. Justice Ginsburg did not agree to this change. Instead, in her opinion, she noted that a change to a protection designed to prevent discrimination only causes more harm. She was concerned it would be a return to the old ways she had fought to change. She descried it as being akin to throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm just because you are not the one that is getting wet.

In other words, just because one individual is not discriminated against, does not mean that it is not happening.

The power in her views has become particularly poignant this year as we have witnessed minority groups having to protest for their own equality.

The Future

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was truly a female icon. In her own words, she fought for the things she cared about but, did so in a way that led others to join her.

Her loss has been felt in an already unstable political environment as controversy has arisen at her nominated successor.

In a turbulent year, it has become clear that the fight for equality for all has not yet been won. And with this, there is one message from Justice Ginsburg that resonates more than most:  

‘Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.’

[i] 1973, 411 U.S 677

[ii] 1975, 420 U.S 636

[iii] 1976, 429 U.S 190

[iv] 1996, 518 US 515

[v] Ibid at para.516

[vi] 2013 570 U.S 529

Blog by Emma Wheelhouse, Solicitor

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