The impact of Ruth Bader Ginsburg


Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the second woman to ever be appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

Katherine Kealey

“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” –William Shakespeare. 

Fierce is one of many words used to describe the 5-foot-1-inch U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who died at age 87 Friday night. Her cause of death was complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, according to the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg’s battle with cancer was one of the many trials she faced throughout her life. Born in Brooklyn, New York, Ginsburg grew up in a low-income, working-class neighborhood. Ginsburg watched her mother work in a garment factory to help pay for her brother’s college, teaching her the values of independence and good education, according to

While pursuing education, Ginsburg was one of nine women studying law at Harvard. She and her female peers were criticized by the law school’s dean for taking the place of qualified men, according to Ginsburg continued to battle for her place, and she eventually became the first female member of the Harvard Law Review.

Entering the world of academia, Ginsburg continued to be an outlier in her field. Ginsburg taught at Rutgers University Law School and then at Columbia University. There, she became the first female tenured professor. Ginsburg went on to serve as a director for the Women’s Rights Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. 

Ginsburg volunteered to write the brief for the case Reed v. Reed, in which she argued against the Idaho statute that said “males must be preferred to females” when there is more than one person available to administer someone’s estate. 

Ginsburg argued this violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, prohibiting differential treatment based on sex. The Court unanimously voted to strike down the Idaho statue, and Reed v. Reed became the first time the Court applied the Equal Protection Clause to the law on the basis of discrimination against gender. 

Kelly Winfrey, assistant professor in journalism and coordinator of research and outreach for Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, said Ginsburg fought for gender equality for both men and women, and the reason for her success could be accredited to her excellent knowledge of the law.

“In the way she spoke about women’s rights issues and women’s access, it was not an argument for women being entitled to something extra,” Winfrey said. “She argues on the basis of the assumption that we are all equal and should be treated as such. I think that resonated with people, and her somewhat reserved yet friendly style made her a role model for men and women.”

Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993 and confirmed by the Senate 96-3. She joined U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court. 

After the retirement of O’Connor, Ginsburg became the only female justice sitting behind the raised bench, but this did not prevent her from fierce legal writings and sporting her “dissent jabot” when she disagreed with an opinion of the court. 

“It’s almost like being back in law school in 1956, when there were nine of us in a class of over 500, so that meant most sections had just two women, and you felt that every eye was on you,” Ginsburg said in a 2009 interview with The New York Times Magazine. “Every time you went to answer a question, you were answering for your entire sex. It may not have been true, but certainly, you felt that way. You were different and the object of curiosity.”

Amy Erica Smith, associate professor of political science, said Ginsburg was a “trailblazer” and Ginsburg made extraordinary achievements when it was even harder for women to advance.

In 2009, Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama and is the first Hispanic and Latina member of the Supreme Court. She was then followed by the appointment of Solicitor General Elena Kagan in 2010.

I always thought that there was nothing an antifeminist would want more than to have women only in women’s organizations, in their own little corner, empathizing with each other and not touching a man’s world,” Ginsburg said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine. “If you’re going to change things, you have to be with the people who hold the levers.” 

Ginsburg’s passing also comes with the question of a successor, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced Friday, also including that the Senate mourns the passing of Ginsburg. In the same statement, McConnell said President Donald Trump will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.

After the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016, the Senate declared because it was an election year, they would not consider a nomination to fill the seat until after the election, a precedent that had never been set before. This prevented President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, from receiving a hearing from the Senate.

Smith said even though Ginsburg had been struggling with her health, her death was still a shock, and she is worried for what lies ahead now.

“In both cases [2016 and 2020], McConnell does as much as he can do to promote the interest of his voters and his own interest,” Smith said. 

Select Republicans in the Senate have announced the Senate should not consider a nominee before the election. Dirk Deam, teaching professor in political science, said the Founding Fathers of the Constitution admitted that the court should not be filled with people for political purposes.

“Under the Constitution, the Judicial Branch has complete power in its decisions,” Deam said. “There is no resource, and there is no appeal from a Supreme Court decision except for a Constitutional Amendment, which is why McConnell is packing the court. He wants a Republican jurist who will reliably vote Republican. Their decisions are immune to any sort of politic recourse, and that is the whole idea.”

In the past four years, the Trump administration appointed 24 percent of active federal judges, in comparison to the 39 percent Obama appointed over eight years, according to Pew Research Center.

“The fundamental reason why they were desperate to keep control of the Senate is because they were able to appoint nearly 200 judges to the federal judiciary,” said Mack Shelley, chair of the political science department. “It is just this huge generational shift. The Republicans have been very purposeful about using their majority in the Senate to make this stuff happen.”

Deam said it is hard to imagine Ginsburg’s seat being filled before the election, but it all depends on how quickly Trump provides a name. Supreme Court justice nominees are typically vetted, but once appointed, they serve for life unless they retire or are impeached. If someone is appointed before the 2020 election, there will likely be a 6-3 majority conservative court. 

Deam said it is possible for someone to be appointed to accomplish a partisan agenda, but judges take an oath to remain unbiased in their opinions.

“By contrast, Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointment to the federal judiciary,” McConnell wrote. “Once again, we will keep our promise.” 

Opposed to Ginsburg, Scalia died almost eight months prior to the election in 2016. Before dying, Ginsburg told her granddaughter it was her “most fervent wish” that her seat not be filled before the elections, according to NPR

“The McConnell rule from 2016 would make sense in a situation like this, when you are really close to an election and it matters to the country which side can appoint a Supreme Court justice; what McConnell said in 2016 should apply now,” Deam said. “Most presidents have honored that, no president has ever tried to push somebody through with this little timeline. So it is not only principle to follow their rule before, but that rule is actually the kind of rule that most people have followed up to this point.”