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; March 15, 1933— September 18, 2020) was 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
  • Died: September 18, 2020, Washington, DC
  • 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 reflected 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.” 

Cancer Surgery (2018)

On December 21, 2018, Justice Ginsburg underwent surgery for the removal of two cancerous nodules from her left lung. According to the Supreme Court press office, there “was no evidence of any remaining disease,” following the procedure performed at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “Scans performed before surgery indicated no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body. Currently, no further treatment is planned,” stated the court, adding, “Justice Ginsburg is resting comfortably and is expected to remain in the hospital for a few days.” The nodules were discovered during tests Ginsburg underwent in relationship to a fall that fractured three of her ribs on Nov. 7.

On December 23, just two days after the surgery the Supreme Court reported that Justice Ginsburg was working from her hospital room. During the week of January 7, 2019, Ginsburg failed to attend oral arguments for the first time in her 25 years on the bench of the Supreme Court. However, the Court reported on January 11 that she would return to work and would need no further medical treatment.

“Post-surgery evaluation indicates no evidence of remaining disease, and no further treatment is required,” said court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg. “Justice Ginsburg will continue to work from home next week and will participate in the consideration and decision of the cases on the basis of the briefs and the transcripts of oral arguments. Her recovery from surgery is on track.”

Treatment for Pancreatic Cancer (2019)

On August 23, 2019, it was announced that Justice Ginsburg had completed three weeks of radiation treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. According to the Supreme Court, the radiation therapy, conducted on an outpatient basis, began Aug. 5, after doctors found a “localized cancerous tumor” on Ginsburg’s pancreas. Doctors at Sloan Kettering stated, “The tumor was treated definitively and there is no evidence of disease elsewhere in the body.”

Announces Recurrence of Cancer (2020)

In a statement issued on July 17, 2020, Justice Ginsburg revealed that she had been undergoing chemotherapy to treat a recurrence of cancer. The statement indicated that the pancreatic cancer she had been treated for in 2019 has returned, this time in the form of lesions on her liver. The 87-year-old Ginsburg said that her bi-weekly treatments were yielding “positive results,” and that she was able to maintain an “active daily routine.” Ginsburg went on to state that she remained “fully able” to continue on the Court. “I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam,” she said, adding, “I remain fully able to do that.”

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.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18, 2020, at age 87 from complications of pancreatic cancer. According to a Supreme Court statement, Ginsburg died surrounded by her family and friends at her home in Washington, DC, and was to be buried next to her husband Martin D. Ginsburg in a private interment service at Arlington National Cemetery. On the day before her death, she was awarded the 2020 Liberty Medal by the National Constitution Center.

A portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is displayed at a storefront on September 19, 2020, the day after her death, in New York.
A portrait of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is displayed at a storefront on September 19, 2020, the day after her death, in New York. Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” said Chief Justice John Roberts. “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.”

President Trump called Ginsburg a “titan of the law” in a statement on the night of her death.

“Renowned for her brilliant mind and her powerful dissents at the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg demonstrated that one can disagree without being disagreeable toward one's colleagues or different points of view,” the President said.

Former President Barack Obama issued a statement calling Ginsburg a “warrior for gender equality” who “inspired the generations who followed her, from the tiniest trick-or-treaters to law students burning the midnight oil to the most powerful leaders in the land.”


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)
  • "I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks." — As quoted in the documentary "RBG"
  • "People ask me sometimes... 'When will there be enough women on the court?' And my answer is, 'When there are nine.' People are shocked, but there'd been nine men, and nobody's ever raised a question about that." — Appearance at Georgetown University, 2015

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.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Academy of Achievement,
  • Galanes, Philip. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem on the Unending Fight for Women's Rights.” New York Times, November 14, 2015,
  • Irin Carmon, Irin and Knizhnik, Shana. “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Dey Street Books (2015). ISBN-10: 0062415832.
  • Burton, Danielle. “10 Things You Didn't Know About Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” US News & World Report, October 1, 2007,
  • Lewis, Neil A. “The Supreme Court: Woman in the News; Rejected as a Clerk, Chosen as a Justice: Ruth Joan Bader Ginsburg.” New York Times, June 15, 1993), 
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Longley, Robert. "Biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo, Sep. 19, 2020, Longley, Robert. (2020, September 19). Biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).