August 10, 1993 – Ruth Bader Ginsburg Joins the Supreme Court

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nee Joan Ruth Bader, was born on March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York. Because there were several other “Joans” in her class at school, her mother Celia suggested the teacher call her Ruth.

Celia had always wanted to further her own education, but was unable to, so she wanted to make sure Ruth wasn’t held back by circumstances as she had been. Celia took an active role in encouraging Ruth, taking her to the library often and directing her to books about female heroes. She also took her on trips, where Ruth could see signs barring entrance to Jews (as she was), blacks, Mexicans, etc. She never forgot the pain and unfairness of the prejudice she saw.

Ruth attended Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she met Martin D. Ginsburg, whom she married following graduation.

RBG and her husband

She obtained a degree in government, and was the highest-ranking female student in her graduating class. In the fall of 1956, she enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women in a class of about five hundred men. Ginsburg tells the story that at a dinner for the brand-new Harvard law women, the Dean asked the female law students, including Ginsburg, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” She recalled:

I was so embarrassed. The dean had each of the women escorted by a distinguished professor. Mine looked more like God than any man I ever met. He was also a chain smoker, so we were sharing an ashtray on my lap. When I stood to speak, the cigarette butts fell on the living-room floor. But I gave him the answer he expected: ‘My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work’.”

But that was not, she reported, what she actually thought.

When her husband took a job in New York City, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School and became the first woman to be on two major law reviews: the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. In 1959, she earned her Bachelor of Laws at Columbia and tied for first in her class.

Nonetheless, after graduation, no one would hire her. Men did not want to work with a woman [not to mention, one probably smarter than any of them]; she was a mother (law firms thought that would distract her); and she was Jewish, at a time when many firms didn’t hire Jews. Finally a judge hired her, and then she became a law professor.

Justice Ginsburg as a young law professor at Rutgers

She taught at both Rutgers School of Law and Columbia Law School, teaching civil procedure as one of the few women in her field. Ginsburg spent a considerable part of her legal career as an advocate for the advancement of gender equality and women’s rights, winning multiple victories arguing before the Supreme Court. She advocated as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union and was a member of its board of directors and one of its general counsels in the 1970s.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg, age 60 at the time, was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court in 1993. She was confirmed in a 96-3 vote and joined the court on this day in history, August 10, 1993.

Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court pose for a group portrait in 1994 (from left, front): Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Associate Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy; (from left, back) Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer.

Justice Ginsburg was the court’s second female justice, following Sandra Day O’Connor, and the first Jewish woman ever to be appointed to the Court.

After O’Connor’s retirement, and prior to Sonia Sotomayor joining the court, Ginsburg was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents. She began to wear two different collars over her robes: one when she agreed with the Court’s decision, and a different one when she dissented. She is generally viewed as belonging to the liberal wing of the court. Ginsburg has authored notable majority opinions, including United States v. Virginia, Olmstead v. L.C., and Friends of the Earth Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg 2016 portrait

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review revealed that female Supreme Court justices are interrupted more by male justices and advocates.

The authors wrote:

We examined the transcripts of 15 years of Supreme Court oral arguments, finding that women do not have an equal opportunity to be heard on the highest court in the land. In fact, as more women join the court, the reaction of the male justices has been to increase their interruptions of the female justices. Many male justices are now interrupting female justices at double-digit rates per term, but the reverse is almost never true. In the last 12 years, during which women made up, on average, 24% of the bench, 32% of interruptions were of the female justices, but only 4% were by the female justices.”

Furthermore, the more women on the Court, the worse the situation:

In 1990, with one woman on the bench (former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), 35.7% of interruptions were directed at her; in 2002, 45.3% were directed at the two female justices (O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg); in 2015, 65.9% of all interruptions on the court were directed at the three female justices on the bench (Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan).”

Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan

Interestingly, the female justices have coped by gradually setting aside polite phrasing. In a sentence that would be funny if it weren’t tragic, the authors added:

We do not see a similar trend with the men, because male justices rarely use these polite speech patterns, even when they first enter the court. It is the women who adapt their speech patterns to match those of the men.”

They aver:

These behavior patterns are important, as oral arguments shape case outcomes. When a female justice is interrupted, her concern is often left unaddressed, which limits her ability to influence the outcome of the case. Women changing their questioning techniques should not be the only response to this problem. The chief justice should play a larger role as referee, enforcing the rule that prohibits advocates from interrupting the justices, and preventing an interrupting justice from continuing.”

She is known as “Notorious RBG”

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020 at age 87 of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. As David Ebershoff wrote after her death:

On the page her voice is the same as the one Americans came to know and revere, and that we now mourn: precise, concise, unyielding; fearless, factual, and so often focused on the marginalized. Justice Ginsburg used her voice to create opportunities for millions—this is one reason her death is painful for many of us. We reflect on those opportunities and are fearful some might close up as a result of her absence.”

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