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Reflections on the Life and Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Sep 23, 2020

Over the past week, justices of the California Supreme Court have reflected on the personal impact U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on their lives and careers.

"It feels impossible to overestimate the importance that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on my generation of female lawyers and jurists," wrote Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. "She was one of ours."

Read tributes from Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and Justice Goodwin Liu, who clerked for Justice Ginsburg in 2000-01. Justice Liu was among the honorary pallbearers who lined the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday as Justice Ginsburg's flag-draped casket arrived at the high court. 


Imagine What Women Can Do
Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye

By Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, Chief Justice of California
Published Sept. 19 in The Sacramento Bee

It feels impossible to overestimate the importance that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had on my generation of female lawyers and jurists. The legal community is in mourning. She was one of ours. She showed the world how to punch above your weight class. Her majority opinions concerning gender and education equality are inspiring; and her withering gut punch in a dissent reverberated many times over the majority opinion.

I always found it noteworthy that Justice Ginsburg shared a warm friendship with her ideological opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, because it went to the heart of how we as judges and justices should treat our colleagues—with civility and respect.

Last year, when the Judicial Council of California presented a Distinguished Service Award to Alameda Superior Court Judge Carol Brosnahan, Justice Ginsburg submitted a brief video of congratulations, as she and Judge Brosnahan were longtime friends. They had entered Harvard Law School together in 1956 — two of nine women in a class of more than 500. Justice Ginsburg said the dean pointed out that the women occupied seats that could have been held by men. “That dean,” said Justice Ginsburg, “could hardly imagine what women could do once the artificial barriers to our opportunities were removed.”

We lost Justice Ginsburg on the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. When she praised Judge Brosnahan last year, she said her friend embodied tikkun olam. “In Jewish tradition,” Justice Ginsburg said, “tikkun olam refers to our obligation to repair tears in our communities. You have done just that with compassion and wisdom.” When I heard her say that, I thought to myself, “And so have you Justice Ginsburg. So have you."

Cantil-Sakauye, a Sacramento native, is the first Filipino American and the second woman to serve as the state’s chief justice.


Ginsburg’s vision led us to a better America. We can do the same.
Justice Goodwin Liu

By Justice Goodwin Liu
Published Sept. 20 in The Washington Post

Goodwin Liu is an associate justice of the California Supreme Court. He clerked for Justice Ginsburg during the 2000-2001 Supreme Court term.

If you are looking for inspiration while mourning the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I recommend her 1993 confirmation hearing. Her testimony provides a master class on our Constitution’s origins and how our nation has grown to become more inclusive and free.

Ginsburg introduced herself as “a Brooklynite, born and bred—a first-generation American on my father’s side, barely second-generation on my mother’s.” “What has become of me could happen only in America,” she said, reflecting on her modest upbringing by parents who lacked the means to attend college. “Like so many others, I owe so much to the entry this nation afforded to people yearning to breathe free.”

Those words resonate with me, an American-born child of Taiwanese immigrants. Our Constitution granted me citizenship years before my parents naturalized. Like the justice and other descendants of immigrants, I profoundly appreciate the faith this country has placed in me.

Throughout her life, Ginsburg repaid that faith by serving our nation and widening its circle of inclusion. She is best known for her work advancing women’s rights. But that work was part of a more powerful whole, a vision of equal citizenship that extended to men, racial minorities, people with disabilities and workers.

Her successes as founding director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project are memorialized in case law, as is her signature accomplishment on the bench: her 1996 opinion declaring unconstitutional the Virginia Military Institute’s refusal to admit women. “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ ” Ginsburg wrote, cannot be used “to create or perpetuate the legal, social, and economic inferiority of ­women.”

But her approach to gender equality sought to free not only women but also men from stereotyped roles. One of her favorite clients was a man who sought Social Security survivor benefits after his wife’s death so he could stay home and raise their son. The law denied such benefits to widowers on the assumption that wives’ earnings were secondary and insignificant. Ginsburg persuaded the Supreme Court—all men in 1975—that the Constitution prohibits allocation of public benefits on the basis of gendered breadwinning and caregiving roles.

Ginsburg also understood that the causes of gender equality and racial equality have been intertwined throughout our history. Women’s suffrage, secured 100 years ago, still left Black women and men disenfranchised as a result of poll taxes, literacy tests and other obstacles. At her confirmation hearing, she credited Justice Thurgood Marshall with reminding us that, despite the “blind spots” in the original Constitution, “through a combination of judicial interpretation, constitutional amendment, laws passed by Congress, ‘We the People’ has grown ever larger” to include women and those “once held in bondage.”

One such law was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which Ginsburg called “one of the most consequential, efficacious, and amply justified exercises of federal legislative power in our Nation’s history.” She wrote those words in a 2013 dissent from a decision invalidating the act’s core mechanism to prevent barriers to minority voting. Striking down the law because it has worked, she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

That dissent, perhaps her most famous, parallels a 2003 opinion upholding affirmative action, in which she emphasized that despite the formal end of Jim Crow, “many minority students encounter markedly inadequate and unequal educational opportunities.” Well before today’s protests for racial justice, Ginsburg warned that “conscious and unconscious race bias, even rank discrimination based on race, remain alive in our land, impeding realization of our highest values and ideals.”

Discrimination was a topic she knew well. In a 2004 case allowing individuals to sue public entities for failure to provide reasonable accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Ginsburg observed that the law was intended to advance “equal-citizenship stature for persons with disabilities.” Congress, she said, understood that “including individuals with disabilities among people who count in composing ‘We the People’ . . . would sometimes require not blindfolded equality, but responsiveness to difference; not indifference, but accommodation.”

In a 1999 case, Olmstead v. L.C., her opinion for the court held that unnecessary institutionalization of people with mental disabilities “perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life” and constitutes discrimination under the ADA. Many disability rights activists consider Olmstead, in attacking a pernicious form of segregation, to be their Brown v. Board of ­Education.

Ginsburg’s vision of equal citizenship also extended to the economic sphere. Through her own familiarity with “the realities of the workplace,” she saw employment not only in material terms but also as a source of dignity, belonging and social regard. Her dissent in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a factory supervisor barred from suing her employer despite being paid thousands less per year than her male peers, prompted Congress to enact new fair pay legislation. Perhaps less well-known are her dissents objecting to enforcement of arbitration agreements that, in her view, reflect “inequality of bargaining power,” thwart “effective access to justice” and undermine “the well-being of vulnerable workers.” The legacy of those dissents, which also urge congressional action, may be still to come.

I am deeply saddened to lose a cherished mentor and friend. The last time I saw the justice was at a small dinner in February. As usual, she was modest and plain-spoken, unchanged by her years of celebrity. It was not hard to see in her the Brooklynite from an immigrant family who lived out her creed that all people should have “equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” That vision led her to make America better and insists that we can too.