WASHINGTON – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death ahead of the 2020 election led to a conservative shift on the Supreme Court, was remembered Friday during ceremonies at the high court as a legendary champion for women's rights.
Speaking just two days after what would have been the justice's 90th birthday, Chief Justice John Roberts called her a “woman of conviction, courage and quiet compassion.”
“Small in stature, she stands as a giant in the history of this court,” Roberts said during a ceremonial session of the court attended by its nine current members as well as former justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer.
Ginsburg’s death just over six weeks before the 2020 election was immensely consequential. It allowed then-President Donald Trump to fill the liberal justice’s seat on the court with a conservative, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and gave conservatives a 6-3 majority on the bench. Barrett was among the justices who voted last year to overturn Roe v. Wade and do away with constitutional protections for abortion, protections Ginsburg had backed as a justice.
Ginsburg served as a justice for 27 years and was the Supreme Court's second female member, but as an advocate for women's rights she had “already used the law to change our country profoundly for the better as an advocate prior to becoming a member of this court,” the chief justice said.
Speaking during ceremonies in the courtroom, Attorney General Merrick Garland called Ginsburg the “chief tactician in the campaign for equal rights for women.” He noted that beginning in 1971 she filed more than 20 Supreme Court briefs related to women's rights. She argued six cases before the court, winning five. It was a time when there were few women lawyers, and even fewer women arguing before the highest court.
Garland remembered being at the Supreme Court as a law clerk, a young lawyer who works for a justice for a year, when Ginsburg argued. The clerks had been told by their justices that she was “the best advocate we would hear” all year, he said, and “she did not disappoint."
“Justice Ginsburg was brilliant, courageous and principled. She believed deeply in the capacity of the law to fulfill our country’s fundamental promise of equality,” Garland said.
Ginsburg was also remembered Friday by some of the men and women who were her law clerks. That included Biden administration Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, the administration's top Supreme Court lawyer, as well as several judges and professors.
“She was a visionary as an advocate who championed equal citizenship for all persons and as a judge who fought every day to fulfill this nation’s promise,” Prelogar said.
Other law clerks remembered her passion for operas, which she would take them to, and how she would edit their work, using copies printed out with triple spaces between the lines and hand editing in red pencil, sometimes cutting out lines and taping them elsewhere if she wanted to move things around. She had a commitment to, in her words, “get it right and keep it tight," Garland said.
The ceremonies at the high court, technically a meeting of the Supreme Court Bar followed by a special session of the court, are a tradition at the high court following the death of a justice, a tradition dating back to 1822.
Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. Her appointment followed by more than a decade that of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the court's first female justice. Ginsburg said at her confirmation hearing that “In my lifetime, I expect to see three, four, perhaps even more women on the high court bench.” Ginsburg ultimately served with two other women: Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Elena Kagan. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson joined the court last year, giving the court four women for the first time.
Speakers remembered in particular the 1996 majority opinion Ginsburg wrote in which the court ruled that the then male-only Virginia Military Institute must be opened to women. They also remembered her 2013 dissent in a case in which the court cut out a key part of the federal law ensuring the voting rights of Black people, Hispanics and other minorities, saying it was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Late in life as the court's senior liberal Ginsburg became something of an icon, particularly to young women, and earned the nickname the “Notorious RBG.” Among the things she was known for was her collection of judicial collars, lace and beaded adornments she would wear over her robe. She was also an avid proponent of exercise and regularly worked out with a personal trainer, who wrote a book about her workout routine that came out in 2017.
Over the years, Ginsburg had several public battles with cancer. She died at age 87 of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. After her death, she made history as the first woman to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Ginsburg is buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, just over the Potomac River from Washington.