By now, the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 18 has reverberated across hundreds of millions of American homes, leaving many filled with anguish, uncertainty and concern about the state of the highest court in the nation. Inducted in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsburg was the first Jewish female, and second female ever, to serve on the Supreme Court. With Ginsburg’s death and lifetime terms for Justices, the Supreme Court is at risk of having a partisan and ideological unbalance for generations to come. Judge Amy Coney Barett, President Trump’s nomination to replace Justice Ginsburg, is almost entirely noted to be conservative on immigration, abortion, racial equity and a host of other interrelated issues.
While confirmation hearings for Judge Barett are set to be held in October, today, we can mourn the loss of an incredible activist. In Jewish tradition, the Kaddish, a Jewish prayer recited during Jewish prayer services and associated with death and mourning, is traditionally recited by immediate family members, yet an outpouring of grief for Ginsburg led to a recitation by hundreds on the steps of the Supreme Court the Friday of her passing.
In a similar vein, we can all take a moment to remember Justice Ginsburg, most powerfully by looking at three of her most notable impacts in her time on the bench.
A mere three years after Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court, a 1996 case challenged the all-male admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, which was at the time one of the last remaining all-male public undergraduate colleges in the country. This all changed when Ginsburg came. With her leadership, Ginsberg wrote a majority opinion ensuring that the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution was constitutionally practiced and the abolishment of the gender-exclusive policy at Virginia Military Institute. The impact of this ruling continues to stand today, allowing opportunities for persons of all genders to enter public institutions without the fear of de jure gender discrimination on their heels.
The court, led by Ginsburg, would require the state-funded school to accept women for admission as well as an enforcement of equal considerations of all genders. In the opinion of United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg wrote “neither the goal of producing citizen soldiers nor VMI’s implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women,” leading the way for women across the country to apply to universities they would have never been able to in the past.
Three years after this case came the landmark case that focused on a strict violation of the “integration mandate,” which, under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), requires state and local governments to “administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.” In this situation, two women plaintiffs with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities were kept confined in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital for years even after being deemed medically ready to move to a community-based program.
Ginsburg penned a fiery majority opinion that ruled in favor of the two women and emphasized the extreme importance of rights for all persons with disabilities, including but not limited to mental, developmental and physical disabilities. In her words, Ginsburg noted that the isolation of the two plaintiffs unjustifyingly “perpetuates assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” This adherence of the ADA, led by Ginsburg, allowed persons with disabilities to continue living integrated lives in a society that is so conditioned to the able-bodied individual.
More recently, in 2015, another landmark case put Ginsburg in the history books as same-sex marriage became a right across all 50 states. Ginsburg all her life had been a major advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and even officiated same-sex weddings here and there, making this case in particular of special importance in her illustrious career. The case revolved again around the 14th Amendment and its ability to ensure persons rights to equal protection and due process, in light of state bans in Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee which denied marriage between people of the same sex.
Though she did not write the majority opinion this time, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted in his own majority opinion, “the limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.” This ruling was especially notable because Ginsburg directly called out the regressive attitude of John Bursuch, the lawyer representing the states, and was able to convince Justice Kennedy to flip, overturning his questioning of marital tradition. In doing so, hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ Americans are able to be married today.
While these cases are three out of dozens of cases Justice Ginsburg had a positive role in, Ginburgs stands for more than just her decisions in the legal realm. Her long career stands as a reminder that qualities that were once deemed as undeserving of equal treatment are truly valuable. From fighting for gender equality and marginalized communities whose voices often aren’t heard to battling against anti-Semitism, Ginsburg has inspired a generation of activists for decades to come.