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'Historic' Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg dies

Vacancy will roil final weeks of presidential race

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is photographed in 2013 in her chambers in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is photographed in 2013 in her chambers in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
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WASHINGTON — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who rose from a modest Brooklyn upbringing to become a famed women’s rights litigator, Supreme Court justice and unexpected pop culture celebrity, died Friday from complications of pancreatic cancer. She was 87.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in a Supreme Court statement. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”

Ginsburg struggled with cancer repeatedly during her life. In 1999, she was treated for rectal and colon cancer. In 2009, she underwent surgery to remove a small pancreatic cancer. On Dec. 21, 2018, doctors removed cancerous growths from her left lung. She also underwent heart surgery in 2014. And in August 2019 she underwent radiation therapy after the discovery of a cancerous tumor on her pancreas.

In July, she revealed she had been undergoing chemotherapy since May to treat a recurrence.

“There was a senator, I think it was after my pancreatic cancer, who announced with great glee that I was going to be dead within six months,” Ginsburg told NPR at the time. “That senator, whose name I have forgotten, is now himself dead, and I am very much alive.”

Ginsburg’s passing gives President Donald Trump a third opportunity to place a justice on the Supreme Court and transform the federal judiciary possibly more than any president in the last half century.

There’s a chance Trump would nominate his first female justice to the Supreme Court, but that nominee is certain to be far more conservative than Ginsburg, a federal judge and ACLU lawyer whom President Bill Clinton selected to replace the retiring Justice Byron White in 1993.

Days before she died, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter, NPR reported, saying, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

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Her replacement on a court now left with five Republican appointees and three Democratic appointees is certain to roil the November elections and give Republicans a new opening to take on abortion rights, one of the nation’s most hotly debated issues since the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.

As a lawyer, Ginsburg first made her mark in that 1970s generation, challenging laws and norms dictating that a woman’s place was in the home and a man’s place was in the workforce.

She litigated or contributed to more than 60 cases dealing with sex-based discrimination, including a dozen to reach the Supreme Court.

Short in stature and known for her careful, halting manner of speaking, Ginsburg became one of the most successful civil rights litigators of the last century. As historian Jane Sherron De Hart wrote in a 2018 biography, “She showed Americans with intellectual rigor and precision that women’s rights are human rights.”

But her career was just getting started. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to a seat for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, just the second woman to sit on that bench. Serving on a court that has long groomed judges for the Supreme Court, Ginsburg established herself as a consensus builder, making friends with conservative judges.

Ginsburg was seen as so moderate that, when the Clinton administration started vetting her for the Supreme Court, some liberals and feminist leaders balked in backing her nomination.

Yet President Bill Clinton, politically flexible in his own way, seemed to delight in selecting a nominee who, he asserted, could not be labeled liberal or conservative. “She has proved herself too thoughtful for those labels,” he said.

She was confirmed 96-3 and became the second woman ever to sit on the Supreme Court.

A quarter-century later, it is hard to imagine Ginsburg being viewed as anything other than the liberal conscience of the nation’s highest judicial body. As the court edged steadily to the right with appointments by Presidents George W. Bush and Trump, Ginsburg’s dissents grew more forceful.

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She regularly called out her conservative colleagues for inconsistently applying their self-proclaimed principles of “federalism,” or deference to state governance.

But she also worked to build consensus on several landmark cases, including those that furthered her vision of a gender-neutral society.

One of these was the court’s 7-1 decision to nullify the male-only admission policy at Virginia Military Institute, the last U.S. public university to exclude women. With that 1996 ruling, the court effectively struck down any law that, as Ginsburg wrote in her opinion, “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn on March 15, 1933, to Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother, Celia, died of cancer before Ruth turned 17, and left a lasting influence. In a 2016 book, “My Own Words,” Ginsburg recalled that her mother “made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to ‘be independent,’ able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.”

Growing up amid the Great Depression, World War II and the Holocaust, Ginsburg was taught to embrace the Hebrew dictum of tikkun olam, or “repair the world.” She attended Cornell University, where the Russian author and literature professor Vladimir Nabokov “changed the way I read and the way I write,” she later recalled. It was also at Cornell that she met her future husband, Marty Ginsburg, who became a loving and supportive partner, helping to advance his wife’s professional ambitions.

“He was so secure about himself, he never regarded me as any kind of threat to his ego,” Ginsburg later said of her husband, whom she wed in 1954. “On the contrary, he took great pride in being married to someone he considered very able.”

Like other women of her era, Ginsburg confronted near daily sexism and institutional bias. At Harvard Law School, she was a mother with a newborn daughter and one of just nine women in a class of 552 students. In her first teaching position, at Rutgers, she delayed informing the university she was pregnant with the couple’s second child, fearful she would lose her position.

Ginsburg would later say she “never had the slightest intention of becoming an expert on discrimination law,” but a combination of circumstance and life experiences led her there.

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In 1972, the ACLU launched the Women’s Rights Project and appointed Ginsburg, then a law professor at Columbia University, as its first director. The project’s goal was to pursue a series of cases that would convince the Supreme Court that sex discrimination existed, and violated the Constitution.

Ginsburg studied the success of Thurgood Marshall, the civil rights litigator and future Supreme Court justice, in devising her legal strategy. She sought out cases that would not only survive court scrutiny but offer mass appeal. One of these was the benefits ordeal endured by a U.S. Air Force lieutenant, Sharron Frontiero.

Frontiero, stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, applied for housing and medical benefits for her husband, Joseph, whom she claimed as a “dependent.” While servicemen then could automatically claim their wives as dependents, servicewomen were required to prove their husbands needed them for more than half their support. Joseph did not qualify under this rule, prompting Frontiero to sue.

The case made it to the Supreme Court, where Ginsburg prepared a 71-page brief that laid out the long history of discrimination against women and eventually wound up in “Landmark Briefs and Arguments of the Supreme Court of the United States.” The court ultimately ruled 8-1 in favor of Frontiero.

While the 1973 ruling didn’t go as far as Ginsburg had hoped, it made clear that the U.S. government could not have a double standard on providing benefits to family members, on the basis of sex.

At the Supreme Court, Ginsburg had long been known as part of the court’s liberal wing, gaining particular notice in 2000 when she dissented in the case of Bush v. Gore, a 5-4 decision that opened the way for George W. Bush to become president.

Ginsburg concluded by saying “I dissent,” leaving out the traditional word “respectfully.”

As the nation became more politically polarized in the 2000s and 2010s, Ginsburg became a celebrity, winning praise from Democrats as she sided with five other justices to uphold a key part of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which many Republicans were eager to repeal.

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A few days later, she joined four other justices in a ruling that made same sex marriage legal nationwide.

Ginsburg’s celebrity went beyond political circles. It had its real beginnings after 2013, when she was dubbed “Notorious RBG” following her blistering dissent to a majority court opinion rolling back voting-rights protections.

But 2018 was clearly her breakout year. She was the focus of two high-profile movies, the documentary “RBG” and “On the Basis of Sex,” in which she is played by the actress Felicity Jones. RBG swag was in high demand, including numerous biographies, children’s books, a workout book, bobblehead dolls and action figures.

Despite the RBG mythology, she previously had a roller-coaster relationship with the women’s movement, especially after her centrist years on the U.S. Appeals Court. Part of that mistrust grew out of her views on Roe v. Wade.

Although Ginsburg supported abortion rights, she hoped the court would settle the issue based on the equal protection for women, instead of privacy rights.

In a 1984 lecture, she called Roe v. Wade a “storm center,” and questioned the sweep of the decision. The court, she said, “ventured too far in the change it ordered and presented an incomplete justification for its action.”

Bloomberg News Service contributed to this report.

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