Biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaking at a Women's History Month reception in the U.S. capitol building
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. Alison Shelly/Getty Images

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933) is an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. She was first appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, then to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, taking the oath of office on August 10, 1993. After former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Ginsburg is the second-ever female justice to be confirmed to the court. Along with justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, she is one of only four female justices ever to be confirmed.

Fast Facts: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

  • Full Name: Joan Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Nickname: The Notorious RBG
  • Occupation: Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
  • Born: March 15, 1933 in Brooklyn, New York
  • Parents’ Names: Nathan Bader and Celia Amster Bader
  • Spouse: Martin D. Ginsburg (deceased 2010)
  • Children: Jane C. Ginsburg (born 1955) and James S. Ginsburg (born 1965)
  • Education: Cornell University, Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, B.A. in government 1954; Harvard Law School (1956-58); Columbia Law School, LL.B. (J.D.) 1959
  • Published Works: Harvard Law Review Columbia Law Review “Civil Procedure in Sweden” (1965), “Text, Cases, and Materials on Sex-Based Discrimination” (1974)
  • Key Accomplishments: First female member of the Harvard Law Review, American Bar Association's Thurgood Marshall Award (1999)

Generally considered part of the court’s moderate-to-liberal wing, Ginsburg's decisions reflect her support of gender equality, workers’ rights and constitutional separation of church and state. In 1999, the American Bar Association gave her its coveted Thurgood Marshall Award for her years of advocacy for gender equality, civil rights, and social justice.

Early Years and Education

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York, during the height of the Great Depression. Her father, Nathan Bader, was a furrier, and her mother, Celia Bader, worked in a clothing factory. From watching her mother forego high school in order to put her brother through college, Ginsburg gained a love for education. With the constant encouragement and help of her mother, Ginsburg excelled as a student at James Madison High School. Her mother, who had so greatly influenced her early life, died from cancer the day before her graduation ceremony.

Ginsburg continued her education at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi at the top of her class with a Bachelor of Arts degree in government in 1954. Later the same year, she married Martin Ginsburg, a law student she met at Cornell. Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Martin was stationed as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. While living in Oklahoma, Ginsburg worked for the Social Security Administration, where she was demoted for being pregnant. Ginsburg put her education on hold to start a family, giving birth to her first child, Jane, in 1955.

Law School

In 1956, after her husband’s completion of his military service, Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in a class with over 500 men. In a 2015 interview with the New York Times, Ginsburg recalls being asked by the Dean of Harvard Law, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” Though embarrassed by the question, Ginsburg offered the tongue-in-cheek response, “My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.”

In 1958, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia University Law School, where she earned her Bachelor of Laws degree in 1959, tying for first in her class. Over the course of her college years, she became the first woman to be published in both the prestigious Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review.

Early Legal Career

Not even her excellent academic record made Ginsburg immune to the overt gender-based discrimination of the 1960s. In her first attempt to find work out of college, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to hire her as his law clerk because of her gender. However, aided by a forceful recommendation from her professor at Columbia, Ginsburg was hired by U.S. District Judge Edmund L. Palmieri, working as his law clerk until 1961.

Offered jobs at several law firms, but dismayed by finding them always to be at a much lower salary than those offered to her male counterparts, Ginsburg chose to join the Columbia Project on International Civil Procedure. The position required her to live in Sweden while doing research for her book on Swedish Civil Procedure practices.

After returning to the States in 1963, she taught at Rutgers University Law School until accepting a full professorship at Columbia University Law School in 1972. In route to becoming the first tenured female professor at Columbia, Ginsburg headed the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). In this capacity, she argued six women’s rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court from 1973 to 1976, winning five of them and setting legal precedents that would lead to significant changes in the law as it affects women.

At the same time, however, Ginsburg’s record shows that she believed the law should be “gender-blind” and ensure equal rights and protections to persons of all genders and sexual orientations. For example, one of the five cases she won while representing the ACLU dealt with a provision of the Social Security Act that treated women more favorably than men by granting certain monetary benefits to widows but not to widowers.

Judicial Career: Court of Appeals and Supreme Court

On April 14, 1980, President Carter nominated Ginsburg to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. With her nomination confirmed by the Senate on June 18, 1980, she was sworn in later the same day. She served until August 9, 1993, when she was officially elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ginsburg was nominated as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Clinton on June 14, 1993, to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Justice Byron White. As she entered her Senate confirmation hearings, Ginsburg carried with her the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary’s “well qualified” rating—its highest possible rating for prospective justices.  

In her Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Ginsburg declined to answer questions about the constitutionality of some issues on which she might have to rule as a Supreme Court justice, such as the death penalty. However, she did confirm her belief that the Constitution implied an overall right to privacy, and clearly addressed her constitutional philosophy as it applied to gender equality. The full Senate confirmed her nomination by a vote of 96 to 3 on August 3, 1993, and she was sworn in on August 10, 1993.

Official Supreme Court Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Official Supreme Court Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Public Domain

Supreme Court Record

Over the course of her tenure on the Supreme Court, some of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s written opinions and arguments during deliberations on landmark cases have reflected her lifelong advocacy for gender equality and equal rights.

  • United States v. Virginia (1996): Ginsburg wrote the Court’s majority opinion holding that the previously male-only Virginia Military Institute could not deny admission to women based solely on their gender.
  • Olmstead v. L.C. (1999): In this case involving the rights of female patients confined in state mental hospitals, Ginsburg wrote the Court’s majority opinion holding that under Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), persons with mental disabilities have the right to live in the community rather than in institutions if medically and financially approved to do so.
  • Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007): Though she voted in the minority in this case of gender-based wage discrimination, Ginsburg’s passionate dissenting opinion moved President Barack Obama to press Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, overturning the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling by making it clear that the time period allowed for the filing of proven claims of pay discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, age, religion, or disability may not be limited. As the first law signed by President Obama, a framed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Act hangs in Justice Ginsburg’s office.
  • Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009): While she did not write the majority opinion, Ginsburg is credited with influencing the Court’s 8-1 ruling that a public school had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of a 13-year-old female student by ordering her to strip to her bra and underpants so that she could be searched for drugs by school authorities.
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (2015): Ginsburg is considered to have been instrumental in influencing the Court’s 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges that ruled same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. For years, she had shown her support for the practice by officiating same-sex marriages and by challenging arguments against it while the case was still in the appellate courts.

Since being seated on the Court in 1993, Ginsburg has never missed a day of oral argument, even while undergoing treatment for cancer and following her husband's death.

In January 2018, shortly after President Donald Trump released a list of his potential Supreme Court nominees, the then 84-year-old Ginsburg silently signaled her intent to remain on the Court by hiring a full set of law clerks through 2020. On July 29, 2018, Ginsburg stated in an interview with CNN that she planned to serve on the Court until age 90. “I’m now 85,” Ginsburg said. “My senior colleague, Justice John Paul Stevens, he stepped down when he was 90, so think I have about at least five more years.” 

Personal and Family Life

Less than a month after she graduated from Cornell in 1954, Ruth Bader married Martin D. Ginsburg, who would later enjoy a successful career as a tax attorney. The couple had two children: a daughter Jane, born in 1955, and a son James Steven, born in 1965. Today, Jane Ginsburg is a professor at Columbia Law School and James Steven Ginsburg is the founder and president of Cedille Records, a Chicago-based classical music recording company. Ruth Bader Ginsburg now has four grandchildren.

Martin Ginsburg died of complications from metastatic cancer on June 27, 2010, just four days after the couple celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary. The couple often spoke fondly of their shared parenting and income-earning marriage. Ginsburg once described Martin as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.” Martin once explained the reason for their long and successful marriage: “My wife doesn't give me any advice about cooking and I don't give her any advice about the law.”

The day after her husband’s death, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was at work hearing oral arguments on the final day of the Supreme Court’s 2010 term.

Quotes

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known for her memorable statements both in and out of court.

  • “I try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women.” (MSNBC interview)
  • "My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.” (ACLU)
  • “Women will have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” (The Record)

Finally, when asked how she would like to be remembered, Ginsburg told MSNBC, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague (Justice) David Souter would say, outside myself.”

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