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Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography

Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Date of birth: March 15, 1933

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  Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Joan Bader was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother Celia was born in the United States to immigrant parents newly arrived from Austria; her father Nathan immigrated to the United States from Russia at age 13. The Baders' first daughter died when Ruth was only two. Although Nathan Bader never attended high school, he achieved some success as a fur manufacturer, while Celia worked in the home and helped with the family business. While Mrs. Bader never pursued a career of her own, she encouraged Ruth's scholarly and professional ambitions, taking her to the library every week to keep her supplied with books. Celia Bader suffered from poor health throughout Ruth's teen years, dying of cancer the day before Ruth graduated from James Madison High School.

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At Cornell University, Ruth Bader earned a bachelor's degree with high honors in government and distinction in all subjects. It was also at Cornell that she met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg, on a blind date. They were married shortly after Ruth Bader's graduation, and lived in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Ginsburg completed his military service. Following his discharge, he started legal studies at Harvard, and 14 months after the birth of their daughter Jane, Ruth too entered Harvard Law School.

One of only nine women in a class of more than 500, Ruth encountered resistance from some of the older faculty. The law dean asked all the women students to justify taking places at the school that could be occupied by men. While attending Harvard, Martin Ginsburg was diagnosed with testicular cancer. During his illness, Ruth attended his classes, as well as her own, and typed all his papers. Even with the added responsibility of caring for her ailing husband and their child, she won a coveted seat on the Harvard Law Review. Martin Ginsburg made a complete recovery, and after completing his studies at Harvard, joined a law firm in New York City. In the next few years, he became a highly regarded expert on tax law.

To keep her young family together, Ruth Ginsburg transferred to Columbia University in Manhattan for her last year of law school. At Columbia too, she won a seat on the law review. Serving on both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews was an unprecedented achievement for any law student, male or female. Ginsburg graduated from Columbia tied for first place in her class.

Despite this stellar academic record, she found her sex a barrier to career advancement. A firm that had employed her between terms at Harvard failed to provide a permanent position. Of the 12 firms with which she interviewed, not one offered her a job. Although Professor Albert Sachs of Harvard personally recommended her to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, the Justice declined to offer her the post of law clerk, apparently too uncomfortable with the thought of a woman in his chambers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography Photo
Ginsburg was eventually offered a clerkship with Judge Edmund G. Palmieri of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where she served from 1959 to 1961. Following this experience, she finally received several offers from major law firms, but instead returned to Columbia, to work on the law school's Project on International Procedure. She became associate director of the project, taught herself Swedish and traveled to the University of Lund to study the Swedish legal system. In 1963, she became a professor of law at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey. While there, she completed a textbook, Civil Procedure in Sweden (1965), published the same year her son James was born.

In 1970, Ginsburg co-founded The Women's Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the United States devoted to gender equality issues. Two years later, she moved from Rutgers to Columbia University Law School, and became the first woman to receive tenure there. In 1973, she argued her first case before the United States Supreme Court. After the American Civil Liberties Union referred a number of sex discrimination complaints to her, she founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. She became the project's general counsel, as well as serving on the national board of the ACLU. At the time, she was writing the first textbook on sex discrimination law, Text, Cases, and Materials on Sex-Based Discrimination, published in 1974.

In these years, she also began to speak as a visiting lecturer at law schools and other institutions in the United States and Europe, including the law schools of Harvard and New York University, the Universities of Amsterdam and Strasbourg, the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies, the Aspen Institute, and Stanford University's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography Photo
Ginsburg continued to appear frequently before the Supreme Court, arguing cases of sex discrimination. One of the most important of these was Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975). Stephen Wiesenfeld was a widower who had been denied the Social Security child support benefits that a woman would have received in the same situation. Her victory in this case was followed three years later by another in Duren v. Missouri. State law in Missouri had made jury duty compulsory for men but optional for women. Ginsburg argued that this devalued women's contribution as citizens, and once again Ginsburg's position prevailed. By this time she had earned a national reputation as a leading advocate for the equal citizenship status of men and women.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Martin Ginsburg followed her to Washington, where he continued to practice tax law as well as becoming a Professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Their daughter Jane Ginsburg followed her parents into the legal profession, and became a law professor at Columbia. Their son James shared his mother's love of classical music. He became a record producer and owns his own label, Cedille Records, in Chicago.

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg had served 13 years on the Court of Appeals, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court of the United States. She would fill the vacancy left by retiring Justice Byron White, who had served since the Kennedy administration. Ginsburg was only the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court, following Sandra Day O'Connor, and was the first Jewish woman to serve. In her Senate confirmation hearings, Ginsburg declined to answer questions concerning her personal views on a number of controversial issues, or to discuss how she might rule in hypothetical cases. She insisted this reticence was essential to maintaining her open-mindedness and integrity as a jurist. Subsequent nominees to the Court have, for the most part, followed her example. The Senate confirmed her appointment by a vote of 96 to three.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography Photo
On the high court, Justice Ginsburg has often been called on to rule in cases regarding the rights of women and issues of gender equality. In 1996, she joined the majority in United States v. Virginia, ruling that the state could not continue to operate an all-male educational institution (the Virginia Military Institute) with taxpayer dollars. She also joined in the majority opinion in Stenberg v. Carhart (2000), striking down a Nebraska law banning so-called "partial birth" abortions. She dissented vehemently in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007), in which an Alabama woman sued unsuccessfully for back pay to compensate for the years in which she had been paid substantially less than junior male colleagues performing the same job. The U.S. Congress would later address the issue of pay equity through legislation known as the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009.

Vice President Albert Gore, Jr. requested that his oath of office be administered to him by Justice Ginsburg when he was sworn in for his second term as Vice President. Ginsburg dissented in Bush v. Gore (2000), the case that ended the Florida recount and effectively decided the 2000 presidential election. Although she is usually identified as a member of the Court's liberal wing, Ginsburg has enjoyed good relationships with more conservative members of the Court, including her only female predecessor, Sandra Day O'Connor, and her longtime friend and fellow opera lover, Antonin Scalia.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Biography Photo
During her years of service, Justice Ginsburg has been faced with daunting personal challenges. In 1999, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy, all without missing a day of service on the bench. Ten years later, she was diagnosed with early-stage pancreatic cancer, and was back in court within 12 days of her successful operation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg appears to have recovered completely from these episodes, but her husband Martin succumbed to cancer four days after their 56th wedding anniversary in 2010.

Following Justice O'Connor's retirement, and subsequent replacement by Samuel Alito, Justice Ginsburg became for a time the only female member of the Supreme Court. In recent years she has been pleased to welcome not one but two new female members of the Court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Despite frequent rumors of her retirement, she shows no signs of flagging in her commitment to her duties. Through all the challenges and losses she has overcome, Justice Ginsburg has remained steadfast, as an impassioned educator and advocate, and as a thorough and impartial jurist.

This page last revised on Nov 11, 2013 20:13 EDT
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