Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman for the ages

Last Friday, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, the remarkable and redoubtable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg slipped into eternity. As a lawyer, she was a trailblazing crusader for equal rights for both men and women. As a jurist, she embodied the noblest traditions of judging — applying her scintillating intellect on a case-by-case basis to reach the right result as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

How remarkable it is that Justice Ginsburg’s life on earth ended in the early hours of Rosh Hashanah. Jewish tradition teaches that those who die on Rosh Hashanah are among the “tzaddikim,” the most righteous and virtuous amongst us.

Eighty-seven at the time of her death, she had survived multiple bouts of cancer. She succumbed to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, explained a statement from the Supreme Court.

Though secular in her observance of Judaism, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was forthright about the critical importance of Judaism to her.

“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew. The demand for justice, for peace, for enlightenment, runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish traditions. I hope that in all the years I have the good fortune to continue serving on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and courage to remain steadfast in service of that demand,” she wrote in a statement to the American Jewish Committee. She had been asked to provide a statement “on how my heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together.”

Though tiny in stature — she was barely 5 feet tall and weighed about 100 pounds — she was a giant in the law, recalling Shakespeare’s line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”

Justice Ginsburg’s fierceness represented a staunch dedication to the pursuit of justice. She was a leading advocate in the United States Supreme Court, where she was victorious in multiple cases attacking gender-based discrimination, ultimately convincing an all-male High Court to apply the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause to sex-based discrimination. She headed the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), carefully crafting the legal strategy that transformed the rights of men and women from a cobweb of federal laws that differentiated between men and women, based on gender, to a more equal playing field.

Like the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, who designed the strategy of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) by successfully arguing civil rights cases in federal courts of appeals and the Supreme Court, as a lawyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg carefully sifted through cases to find those that provided the best opportunity for advancing her cause. She was a masterful writer and advocate, who spoke with carefully chosen words, designed to cut to the core of a case.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals. 

As a jurist, she carefully nurtured collegial relationships with her judicial peers, whether they agreed with her or not, to create a positive climate where ideas could be debated, exchanged and opposed in an atmosphere of collegiality.

Her closest friendship was with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, an arch-conservative jurist, with whom she served on both the D.C. Circuit Court and Supreme Court. They shared a love of humor, dining and opera. Despite intense differences expressed on cases, their cherished friendship is an example of the law working at its most sublime level — keen intellects colliding over matters of principle that did not mar a friendship that included celebrating New Year’s Eves with their spouses for many years.

The most noteworthy Supreme Court opinion she authored was the majority opinion that she wrote in the 1996 discrimination case arising from the Virginia Military Institute’s male-only enrollment policy. In United States v. Virginia, V.M.I. argued that its “adversative” curriculum for educating young men to become officers through a rigorous physical training program was inappropriate for young women. Virginia set up a separate military college to train young women. Justice Ginsburg, writing for a 7-to-1 majority, found Virginia’s alternative constitutionally deficient.

“Any different treatment,” she wrote, must not “create or perpetuate the legal, social and economic inferiority of women.”

Her 56-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg, one of America’s most accomplished tax lawyers and a beloved Georgetown University law professor, was an almost 60-year romance that began when the two met as undergraduates at Cornell. Martin Ginsburg died of cancer in 2010. Their match was beshert, as Jewish tradition teaches — they were perfect complements of each other.

From her humble origins in Brooklyn, she scaled the heights of the law to its highest pinnacle. She had experienced the inability to get a job with a law firm after graduating first in her law school class because law firms simply did not hire women. She became a law professor at Rutgers University, and later became the first tenured woman law professor at Columbia University’s Law School. Her novel legal arguments ultimately changed the way that men and women live in America.

Let us give thanks for the wondrous life of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who opened the gates of equal opportunity for millions of Americans, and whose memory and legacy burn brightly as a beacon of hope for all.

This editorial was published in the Sept. 24 Jewish Herald Voice and is reprinted with permission.

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