On Aug. 10, 1993, a force of nature entered the Supreme Court of the United States. And in the 27 years since taking her oath of office, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg definitely earned her nickname, the Notorious RBG.
As the first Jewish female — and second female justice ever — to serve on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg entered the position already a trailblazer, but it was her incomparable work ethic and tireless commitment to gender equality that truly set her apart. While Ginsburg had already established herself as an uncommonly accomplished and driven legal powerhouse by the time President Bill Clinton nominated her for the Supreme Court on June 15, 1993, it was the decisions she made since that earned her a coveted position that was nothing short of historic [source: Rivas].
Ginsburg died on Sept. 18, 2020 of complications from metastatic cancer of the pancreas, but her accomplishments live on. Here are 10 of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's most essential Supreme Court cases in chronological order.
After taking some time to settle into her role as associate justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg began making a name for herself as an advocate for gender equality and women's rights. In 1996, the case of the United States v. Virginia made that clear. At the time, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) remained the only single-sex school among Virginia's public institutions of higher learning. Alumni of VMI's "citizen-soldier" training were considered to be hot commodities because the unique curriculum was designed to prepare students for leadership positions in civilian life and military service using a specific type of training known as the "adversative method" exclusive to the institution. Thanks to the competitive edge the institution gave alumni, VMI had the largest per-student endowment of all public undergraduate institutions in the country [source: LII].
The United States sued VMI and the state of Virginia, alleging that the school's males-only admission policy violated the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits states from denying anyone within the territory the equal protection of the laws. The state argued that the restriction was fair game because women wouldn't be able to handle the rigorous nature of the program. But VMI attempted to cover its bases by proposing a parallel program for women, called the Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership (VWIL), located at a private all-women liberal arts women's school called Mary Baldwin College [source: LII].
Ginsburg and the majority on the court weren't convinced. Writing for the 7-1 majority, Ginsburg asserted, "Virginia maintains that methodological differences are justified by the important differences between men and women in learning and developmental needs, but generalizations about 'the way women are,' estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description" [source: Justia].
Yep, that deserves some applause. She also stated that the VWIL wasn't an adequate compromise since the court considered it "a pale shadow of VMI in terms of the range of curricular choices and faculty stature, funding, prestige, alumni support and influence." The school contemplated going private to circumvent the ruling, but its board decided in a super close vote (8-7) to finally let women through the doors, thus ending the existence of all-male American public universities [source: Justia].
9: Olmstead v. L.C., 1999
In the late '90s, two women with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit in the state-run Georgia Regional Hospital. Elaine Wilson had been diagnosed with a personality disorder while Lois Curtis was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Once they'd both completed treatment, the women were deemed ready for a move to a community-based program. But the move never happened: Wilson and Curtis were kept confined in the institution for several years after completing treatment, and eventually Curtis sued the state (under the name of Tommy Olmstead, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Human Resources) [sources: LII, OlmsteadRights].
The plaintiffs argued that the hospital was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Title II of the ADA "protects qualified individuals with disabilities from discrimination on the basis of disability in services, programs, and activities provided by State and local government entities." In its defense, the state of Georgia argued that it had been inadequate funding that kept them from moving the women into appropriate program, not discrimination [source: ADA, LII].
Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the court, siding with the plaintiffs, and stating that under Title II of the ADA, "States are required to provide community-based treatment for persons with mental disabilities when the State's treatment professionals determine that such placement is appropriate, the affected persons do not oppose such treatment, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities" [source: LLI].
The landmark decision meant "that public entities must provide community-based services to persons with disabilities when such services are appropriate; the affected persons do not oppose community-based treatment; and community-based services can be reasonably accommodated" [source: ADA].
8: Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, 2000
When Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. bought a wastewater treatment plant, it was granted a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that granted it permission to discharge treated water and "limited" pollutants. However, Laidlaw repeatedly released amounts of mercury into South Carolina's North Tyger River that exceeded those limits, and eventually, plaintiff-petitioners, Friends of the Earth (FOE) and others, filed a citizen suit under the Clean Water Act (which regulates the discharge of pollutants).
After the lawsuit began, Laidlaw began to comply with the permit and argued that the case was now moot (meaning "resolved") because the company had corrected its wrongdoing [sources: Oyez, EPA, U.S. Legal].
The Supreme Court wasn't having it. In the 7-2 opinion delivered by Ginsburg, the Court held that a case from a citizen for civil penalties doesn't have to be dismissed as "moot" just because the defendant begins complying with regulations after litigation has already begun.
In part, Ginsburg wrote, "a defendant's voluntary cessation of allegedly unlawful conduct ordinarily does not suffice to moot a case. Congress has found that civil penalties in the Clean Water Act cases do more than promote immediate compliance ... they also deter future violations." The Court also ruled that it was fair for FOE to sue on behalf of its members [sources: Justia, Oyez].
7: Bush v. Gore, 2000
Anyone old enough to remember the 2000 presidential election probably shudders at the phrase "hanging chad." Referring to an incompletely punched paper ballot, the figure of speech became a main staple of news headlines and late-night TV monologues for months.
It all started in the state of Florida where it was reported that Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush had beat Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore by just 1,784 votes. Because the margin was so slim (0.01 percent), state law required an automatic machine recount, which shrunk Bush's lead to 327 votes. When the margin is that slim, Florida law allows candidates to request a manual recount, which is just what Gore did in the four counties that traditionally voted Democrat: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade [sources: Britannica, Justia].
The problem was, counties were given seven days to certify their election returns to the Secretary of State, and they were concerned they wouldn't make the deadline. Three counties missed the deadline entirely: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris had required any counties who needed a later filing date to submit a written explanation of the circumstances. None of the counties' submissions met Harris's standards for an extension, so she went ahead and certified Bush as Florida's winner.
Fast forward a few weeks to when Gore's campaign obtained an order from the Florida Supreme Court for a statewide manual recount. The next day, on Dec. 9, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the manual recounts must halt, and agreed to hear oral arguments from both parties. On Dec. 11, both parties presented their cases, Bush's team arguing that the Florida Supreme Court exceeded its authority when it authorized the manual recount; Gore's team arguing the case had already been decided at the state level and was not a matter for the federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 vote, overturned the Florida decision ruling that the Florida Supreme Court violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
In the end, the justices ruled 5-4 on the entire matter — the majority arguing that the Florida Supreme Court's decision to hold a statewide recount created a new election law, something only the state legislator could do.
Writing for the five-justice majority, Antonin Scalia stated the votes that were ordered to be counted were not "legal votes," (those in which there is a "clear indication of the intent of the voter") so the recount would do irreparable harm to Bush and the integrity of the democratic process. The dissenters — RBG included — felt the real threat to the democratic process was not ordering a recount. Despite being flawed, they said, a recount should be allowed to proceed because no vote should have a deadline to be counted. One noteworthy aspect to Ginsburg's dissent: She ended it with "I dissent" rather than her traditional "I respectfully dissent" [source: Britannica].
6: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 2007
Anyone who saw the documentary "RBG" probably remembers the assertive Alabama drawl of Lilly Ledbetter, the plaintiff in this important case of employment discrimination. Over the course of her nearly two-decade career at the Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, Ledbetter faced sexual harassment and was told by her employer that women shouldn't be working there. (Ledbetter was one of just a few female supervisors).
Because salaried employees were given or denied raises based on performance evaluations, Ledbetter believed she was being shortchanged compared to her male counterparts. Goodyear forbade employees to discuss pay, so Ledbetter didn't have solid proof of any sex-based discrimination until she received an anonymous note listing the salaries of three male managers. That's when she learned she'd been paid 40 percent less than the men with equal jobs in her division [sources: NWLC, Dvorak].
Ledbetter filed suit after her November 1998, retirement and claimed discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. The District Court awarded Ledbetter over $3.5 million in back pay and damages (which the judge later reduced to $360,000). But upon appeal, Goodyear argued that "the pay discrimination claim was time barred with regard to all pay decisions made before September 26, 1997 — 180 days before Ledbetter filed her EEOC questionnaire — and that no discriminatory act relating to her pay occurred after that date."
The Eleventh Circuit reversed the decision, agreeing that for Ledbetter's claims to hold up in court, the alleged discriminatory events would have had to occur within the 180-day-period before her filing. And while there were two pay decisions made during that period, the court felt "there was insufficient evidence to prove that Goodyear had acted with discriminatory intent" during that time [sources: AAUW, LLI].
When the case made it to the Supreme Court, the justices had to decide whether a plaintiff is allowed to bring an action under Title VII when the illegal pay discrimination they're alleging occurred outside the statutory limitations period. The court voted 5-4 to uphold the ruling that discriminatory intent must occur during the 180-day statutory period, so Ledbetter had missed her window.
Ginsburg wrote a passionate dissent, arguing that "pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter's case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops only over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee's view. Employers may keep under wraps the pay differentials maintained among supervisors, no less the reasons for those differentials. Small initial discrepancies may not be seen as meet for a federal case, particularly when the employee, trying to succeed in a nontraditional environment, is averse to making waves" [sources: Bowman, Justia].
While the case didn't turn out as Ledbetter's supporters had hoped, it went on to make history: On Jan. 29, 2009, President Barrack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 as the first piece of legislation of his administration. The law overturned the Supreme Court's decision in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and states that each paycheck containing discriminatory compensation is a separate violation — no matter when that discrimination began [source: EEOC].
5: Shelby County v. Holder, 2013
Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 "to banish the blight of racial discrimination in voting. Until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the piece of federal legislation at the height of the civil rights movement, racial discrimination was rampant in voting. Certain sections of the Act created rules meant to protect it from changes down the road.
Section 4b, for example, established a formula to identify areas of the country where racial discrimination had been most prevalent and to provide stricter provisions in those areas. These "tests or devices" included voting prerequisites like literacy tests. Under Section 5 of the Act, jurisdictions were required to seek approval by the attorney general or a three-judge D.C. panel before making any changes to voting practices. Known as a "preclearance," this feature of the Act was meant to ensure that any change "did not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" [sources: DOJ, DOJ].
While Section 5 was initially set to expire after five years, the Act was reauthorized several times over the decades. Alabama's Shelby County challenged its constitutionality in 2013 based on the "tests and devices" and "preclearance" requirements. The claim was that the sections exceeded Congress's power to enforce the 14th ("equal protection of the laws") and 15th Amendments (the "right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"), and violated the Constitution itself [sources: LLI, LOC].
According to the Supreme Court 5-4 majority opinion, section 4 was in fact deemed unconstitutional because it imposed burdens that no longer made sense in the modern era and represented an unconstitutional violation of the power to regulate elections (which are supposed to be governed by the states themselves).
In another major dissent, Ginsburg argued that the amendments support Congress' authority to enact legislation specifically targeting potential state abuses as long as Congress demonstrates that the means taken rationally advance a legitimate objective, like the VRA. In typical RBG eloquence, she wrote, "throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet" [sources: Supreme Court, Oyez].
Ginsburg wasn't alone in her opinion. President Barack Obama expressed deep disappointment with the decision, as did many other leaders in politics and law. Since the ruling, several states that were once covered under preclearance have passed laws to remove provisions like online voting registration and early voting. Five years after the ruling, nearly a thousand polling places have been shut down, many of which were located in predominantly African-American counties [sources: White House, Vasilogambros, Newkirk].
4: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 2014
The national arts-and-crafts chain known as Hobby Lobby consists of more than 500 stores with 13,000 employees and the Green family is the head of it all. What some customers may not know is that the Green's business is based around the principles of Christianity and run according to Biblical rules. According to those beliefs, the Greens deem the use of certain contraception, including Plan B and two different IUDs, immoral because they believe they cause abortions [source: Dockterman].
However, thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), employment-based group health care plans are required to provide certain types of preventative care to employees — and that includes FDA-approved birth control methods. Exemptions were in place for religious employers and non-profit religious institutions, though those types of exemptions weren't meant for for-profit businesses like Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. [source: Oyez].
Knowing all this, you might expect to hear of an employee suing the company, but it turns out that in 2012, the Greens themselves, representing Hobby Lobby, sued the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, challenging the contraception requirement. They argued the requirement violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA). That Act "prohibits the "Government [from] substantially burden[ing] a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability" unless the Government "demonstrates that application of the burden to the person (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest" [source: LLI].
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby. That decision means that the U.S. government now cannot require employers provide insurance coverage for birth control if it conflicts with the employer's religious beliefs. In the majority opinion, Justice Alito argued that "the owners of the businesses have religious objections to abortion, and according to their religious beliefs the four contraceptive methods at issue are abortifacients."
Unsurprisingly, Ginsburg delivered an impassioned dissent, arguing that the ACA's contraceptive mandate served as the least restrictive way possible for the government to ensure women had access to contraception. She cited research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, that predicted contraception would reduce unintended pregnancies and abortions in the U.S., and she argued that by exempting for-profit organizations, the government was preventing women from receiving contraceptive care and jeopardizing female employees' health and wellbeing [source: Gerais].
3: Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015
Fourteen same-sex couples, and two men whose same-sex partners had passed away, filed suits in their home states of Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio and Tennessee. At the time, all four of these states defined marriage as a union between one man and one woman. The petitioners said that this narrow definition violated the 14th Amendment because it denied them the right to get married (or have the marriages they'd received in other states legally recognized at home).
After the trial courts in each state sided with the plaintiffs, the rulings were appealed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where the decisions were reversed, and it was ruled that state bans did not in fact violate the couples' 14th Amendment rights to equal protection and due process. This split led to the Supreme Court review [sources: Supreme Court, Oyez].
Ginsburg voted with the majority on this one, in the 5-4 ruling that held that same-sex marriage bans are indeed violations of the 14th Amendment's Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses. "The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, "a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity" [sources: Supreme Court].
This landmark civil rights case legalized same-sex marriage across the United States, giving hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ Americans the same rights and protections guaranteed to heterosexual couples by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution.
2: Artis v. District of Columbia, 2017
A District of Columbia Department of Health (DOH) code inspector named Stephanie Artis filed a discrimination claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against her employer in 2009, alleging that her supervisor had singled her out unfairly. The following year, with her claim still pending, the DOH terminated her employment. The year after that, Artis sued the District in federal court saying it had violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion). The Federal District Court ruled against her and dismissed the case [sources: Oyez, AAUW].
Fifty-nine days later, Artis refiled the claims in the D.C. Superior Court, but the District said the claims exceeded the statute of limitations. Artis argued that the statute of limitations was "tolled" (i.e. suspended) pending the outcome of the federal district court, citing 28 U.S. Code § 1367 (which states "the period of limitations for any claim asserted under subsection (a), and for any other claim in the same action that is voluntarily dismissed at the same time as or after the dismissal of the claim under subsection (a), shall be tolled while the claim is pending and for a period of 30 days after it is dismissed unless State law provides for a longer tolling period").
The D.C. Court of Appeals agreed that Artis had only had a 30-day window to refile the claims, so it rejected her argument, which sent the case to the Supreme Court [sources: Oyez, Ballotpedia, LLI].
The Supreme Court was tasked with deciding whether the tolling provision suspended a statute of limitations period in which to file a lawsuit entirely or whether 28 U.S. Code § 1367 only allowed for a 30-day grace period to refile claims in a state or local court following a federal court's determination that it lacks jurisdiction.
By a vote of 5-4, the court reversed the D.C. Superior Court's ruling. The majority adopted the so-called "stop-the-clock" interpretation proffered by Artis. Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the court, which held that the tolling provision suspended the statute of limitations clock while the federal case was pending.
"Tellingly, the District has not identified any federal statute in which a grace-period meaning has been ascribed to the word 'tolled' or any word similarly rooted. Nor has the dissent, for all its mighty strivings, identified even one federal statute that fits its bill, i.e., a federal statute that says 'tolled' but means something other than 'suspended,' or 'paused,' or 'stopped.'"
This meant Artis should have been given the remainder of the statute of limitations period plus 30 days to file her claim in a D.C. local court [source: Ballotpedia].
1: Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018
A case concerning the definition of "aggravated felonies" came before the Supreme Court, as it relates to immigration policies. An aggravated felony includes "a crime of violence as defined in 18 U. S. C. §16". The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) guaranteed that anyone convicted of an "aggravated felony" after entering the United States would be deported. James Dimaya, a lawful, permanent U.S. resident who had emigrated from the Philippines in 1992, had two convictions for first-degree burglary under California law. After his second offense, the government considered him an aggravated felon who should be deported.
The government argued that the convictions fell within the "residual clause" of the definition of a violent crime, which included "any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense" [source: Supreme Court].
While Dimaya's appeal was pending in the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court deemed a similar clause in a separate 2015 case unconstitutional. This one was part of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), and defined a "violent felony" as any felony that "otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The Supreme Court considered the clause "void for vagueness" under the 5th Amendment's Due Process Clause. Referring this other case, the Supreme Court held that the definition of "aggravated felonies" was also unconstitutionally vague [source: LLI].
One interesting twist regarding the ruling in Sessions v. Dimaya is, aside from striking down the key provision of a statute that allows the expulsion of certain noncitizens, the ruling marked the first time Ginsburg was assigned a majority opinion. Justices are assigned opinions based on seniority, and because Ginsburg voted with the majority in Sessions v. Dimaya, she was the most senior in line. She assigned the opinion to Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote, "Three terms ago, in Johnson v. United States, this Court held that part of a federal law's definition of 'violent felony' was impermissibly vague ... The question in this case is whether a similarly worded clause in a statute's definition of 'crime of violence' suffers from the same constitutional defect. Adhering to our analysis in Johnson, we hold that it does" [source: Supreme Court].
Lots More Information
Author's Note: 10 Essential Supreme Court Cases of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: RBG has always been a hero in my eyes, but it was only in my deep research for this piece that I discovered just how hard the icon worked to earn her spot in history. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School Class in 1956. "You felt in classes as if all eyes were on you," she said in an interview. "And that if you didn't perform well, you'd be failing not only for yourself but for all women." She says she attributes part of her success in law school to parenting a 14-month-old daughter at the time of her studies. By the way, she was ranked first in her class at Harvard and Columbia, the school she transferred to her senior year.
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