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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, champion of women's rights, has died at 87

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies at 87
Special Report: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dead at 87 11:07

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the longest serving woman on the U.S. Supreme Court and a strong liberal voice on issues dividing the nation, has died, the Supreme Court said on Friday. She was 87.

"Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died this evening surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, D.C., due to complications of metastatic pancreas cancer," the Court said in a statement.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a longtime friend of Ginsburg's, called her a "jurist of historic stature."

"We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague," Roberts said. "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 revealed in July 2020 that she was undergoing chemotherapy for a recurrence of cancer. She had previously been treated for four bouts with cancer over the years, including a pancreatic tumor in 2019 and growths in her lung in 2018.

Her death leaves a vacancy on the Supreme Court that is sure to set off an intense partisan battle over her replacement, as a conservative Trump nominee could tip the balance in closely divided cases.

Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993. She was only the second woman in U.S. history elevated to the high court, after Sandra Day O'Connor, who was named by President Reagan in 1981.

Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her Chambers US Courthouse
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1984. Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

She grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s and 40s. She graduated from Cornell University and then in 1956, enrolled at Harvard Law School, where she was one of just nine women in a class of about 500. She juggled her studies with taking care of her first child.

When her husband, Martin Ginsburg, got a job at a New York law firm, they moved back to the city and she completed her degree at Columbia Law School. But despite graduating at the top of her class, the job market wasn't welcoming.

"There was not a single firm in the entire city of New York that would offer me a job," she recalled. She said she had three strikes against her: she was Jewish, a woman, and perhaps the ultimate deal-breaker, a mother.

"Legal employers were afraid ... that I would be staying home more than I was showing up for work," she said.

Of course, she proved them wrong, building an impressive career as a law professor, founding director of the Women's Rights Project of the ACLU, and federal judge.

Her work with the Women's Rights Project in the 1970s had a far-reaching impact. She argued six landmark cases on gender equality before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning five of them to eliminate legal barriers that held women back in the workplace and civic life. She strategically advanced cases that would establish precedents for treating men and women equally under the law in such areas as jury duty requirements, Social Security and military spousal benefits, and even the legal drinking age.

"She is to the women's movement what former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was to the movement for the rights of African-Americans," then-President Clinton said when he nominated her to fill the Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice Byron White.

"I am proud to nominate this path-breaking attorney, advocate, and judge," he said, portraying her as a nonpartisan choice. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative; she has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels." 

Ginsburg won Senate confirmation by a vote of 96 to 3.

"Her 27 years on the Court exceeded even my highest expectations when I appointed her," Mr. Clinton said in a statement following her death. "Her landmark opinions advancing gender equality, marriage equality, the rights of people with disabilities, the rights of immigrants, and so many more moved us closer to 'a more perfect union'."

She has described her approach to the law as cautious and measured, but over a quarter-century on the high court she assembled a track record of decisions placing her firmly in the court's liberal wing. She supported abortion rights, marriage equality, the Affordable Care Act, and women seeking restitution for unequal pay.

Conservatives criticized her for straying too far from the Founding Fathers' original meaning of the Constitution. But when CBS News' Mike Wallace pointed out to her in a 2006 interview that the Constitution never mentioned abortion or same-sex marriage, she responded: "Think back to 1787. Who were 'we the people'? … They certainly weren't women … they surely weren't people held in human bondage. The genius of our Constitution is that over now more than 200 sometimes turbulent years that 'we' has expanded and expanded."

Despite their very different ideological views, Ginsburg became close friends with the fiery conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016. They loved attending the opera together and even took to the stage as extras.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shares laugh with her husband Martin as they listen to Justice Stephen Breyer speak at Columbia Law School, Sept. 12, 2003.  ED BAILEY/AP Photo

Ginsburg was treated for cancer multiple times — undergoing colon cancer surgery in 1999, an operation for early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009, having tumors removed from her lung in 2018, radiation for a pancreatic tumor in 2019 and chemotherapy in the spring and summer of 2020. Yet she repeatedly insisted she had no intention of retiring as long as she could do the job "full steam," and she rarely missed a day of work. To keep up her stamina she worked out with a personal trainer and became renowned for her notoriously tough fitness routine.

When her husband of 56 years, Martin Ginsburg, died in 2010, she was back on the bench the next day. She credited their long and happy marriage to a piece of advice she once received from her mother-in-law.

"She said, 'Dear, in every good marriage it helps sometimes to be a little deaf'," Ginsburg said. "And I followed that advice in dealing not only with my dear spouse but in dealing even with my colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court."

Ginsburg achieved an unexpected measure of pop culture stardom in her later years, when a blog and online memes celebrating the soft-spoken, elderly Justice as the "Notorious R.B.G." went viral, leading to a best-selling biography by the same name. 

The American flag flies at half staff following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, outside of the U.S. Supreme Court, in Washington
The American flag flies at half staff outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on September 18, 2020. ALEXANDER DRAGO / REUTERS

One of the book's authors, Irin Carmon, told Rolling Stone in 2017, "When people ask us, 'Why are young women inspired by RBG?' to us it's such an obvious question that it's hard to answer. We live in a society that most of the time really stigmatizes ideals of gender equality and feminism, and there's this woman who has for decades been using her power in the highest court of the land for good. That's a really big deal."

A documentary film, "RBG," and a Hollywood dramatization of her story, "On the Basis of Sex," helped cement Ginsburg's image as a crusader in the popular imagination. 

Ginsburg herself expressed a more modest view of a Supreme Court justice's role: "Judges are something like firefighters. They don't make the fires, but they do their best to put them out."

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