Women’s rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies aged 87

Women’s rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies aged 87
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seen in her chambers in at the Supreme Court in Washington, has been remembered as a champion of women’s rights (Cliff Owen/AP)

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a diminutive yet towering women’s rights champion, has died aged 87.

The court’s second female justice died from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, though she made few concessions to age and recurrent health problems in her latter years.

In her final years on the court, Ms Ginsburg was the unquestioned leader of the liberal justices, as outspoken in dissent as she was cautious in earlier years.

During her latter period she also became a social media icon, the Notorious RBG, a name coined by a law student who admired her dissent in a case cutting back on a key civil rights law.

The justice was at first taken aback. There was nothing “notorious” about this woman of rectitude who wore a variety of lace collars on the bench and often appeared in public in elegant gloves.

But when her law clerks and grandchildren explained the connection to another Brooklynite, the rapper The Notorious BIG, her skepticism turned to delight:“In the word the current generation uses, it’s awesome,” Ms Ginsburg said in 2016, shortly before she turned 83.

Her stature on the court and the death of her husband in 2010 probably contributed to Ms Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench beyond the goal she initially set for herself, to match Justice Louis Brandeis’s 22 years on the court and his retirement at the age of 82.

Ms Ginsburg had special affection for Mr Brandeis, the first Jew named to the high court. She was the court’s second woman and its sixth Jewish justice, but in time was joined by two other Jews, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and two other women, Ms Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Ms Ginsburg’s journey to the US Supreme Court, where people gathered following her death, began when she left law school in 1959 (Alex Brandon/AP)

Both developments were perhaps unthinkable when Ms Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959 and faced the triple bogey of looking for work as a woman, a mother and a Jew.

Forty years later, she noted that religion had become irrelevant in the selection of high-court justices and that gender was heading in the same direction, though when asked how many women would be enough for the high court, Ms Ginsburg replied without hesitation, “Nine”.

She could take some credit for equality of the sexes in the law. In the 1970s, she argued six key cases before the court when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement, and won five.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books,” President Bill Clinton said in 1993 when he announced her appointment. “She has already done that.”

Ms Ginsburg was nominated to the court by Bill Clinton (Marcy Nighswander/AP)

Her time as a justice was marked by triumphs for equality for women, as in her opinion for the court ordering the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding.

There were setbacks, too. She dissented forcefully from the court’s decision in 2007 to uphold a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.

The “alarming” ruling, Ms Ginsburg said, “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives”.

The justice once said that she had not entered the law as a champion of equal rights. “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other,” she wrote. “I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyse problems clearly.”

The justice, pictured with Joe Biden, right, died of metastatic pancreatic cancer at age 87 (Marcy Nighswander/AP)

Besides civil rights, Ms Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use. During her tenure, the court declared it unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and killers younger than 18.

She voted most often with the other liberal-leaning justices, fellow Clinton appointee Mr Breyer and two Republican appointees, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, then later with President Barack Obama’s two appointees, Ms Sotomayor and Ms Kagan.

“Hope springs eternal,” she said in 2007, “and when I am writing a dissent, I’m always hoping for that fifth or sixth vote — even though I’m disappointed more often than not.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933, the second daughter in a middle-class family. Her older sister, who gave her the lifelong nickname “Kiki,” died at age 6, so Ms Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush section as an only child. Her dream, she had said, was to be an opera singer.

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