CNN Films’ “RBG” chronicles the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Watch Saturday, September 19 at 10 p.m. ET.
In her many years on the bench, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s voice on the court never faded, with every one of her authored court opinions further solidifying her position as a tenacious dissenter and contemplative jurist.
Ginsburg’s turn of phrase has taken center stage in several landmark cases over the years, her steadfast voice proving critical for disenfranchised communities across the country.
“When a justice is of the firm view that the majority got it wrong, she is free to say so in dissent. I take advantage of that prerogative, when I think it is important, as do my colleagues,” Ginsburg wrote in a 2016 opinion piece in The New York Times.
The late Justice Antonin Scalia, who served with Ginsburg on both the high court and US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, often spoke of her trenchant approach to oral arguments, specifically describing her in one interview as “a tigress on civil procedure.”
“She has done more to shape the law in this field than any other justice on this court,” Scalia said in a 2013 interview in his chambers. “She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone.”
In January 2020, Ginsburg in an interview with CNN’s Joan Biskupic laughed at the remarks of her late friend and colleague, who may have respected her but often voted against her.
Rejoined Ginsburg, “I wish he had listened to me more often.”
Here are some of Ginsburg’s most notable writings:
Virginia Military Institute
A mere three years after Ginsburg joined the court, a 1996 court case challenged the all-male admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute. The court, led by Ginsburg, would require the state-funded school to accept women for admission.
In the opinion, United States v. Virginia, Ginsburg wrote “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.”
In a talk before the school’s cadets in 2018, Ginsburg said she knew her opinion, which opened the doors to women, “would make VMI a better place” and thought that those who were initially opposed would learn from their women classmates “how much good women could do for the institution.”
The impact of the ruling continues to be felt, both at the school and in the country at large.
“The majority opinion in the VMI case is perhaps the best-known and most important majority opinion Justice Ginsburg has penned in her 24 years on the Supreme Court,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law. “That case, more than any other, epitomized the justices’ effort to establish true sex equality as a fundamental constitutional norm, and its effects are continuing to reverberate today.”
In a 2013 decision out of the court, Chief Justice John Roberts led a majority invalidating a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that required certain jurisdictions with a history of descrimination to undergo federal oversight before enacting any changes in voting procedure.
Ginsburg penned a fiery dissent in the case, pointing out that Congress passed the latest installment of the Voting Rights Act with “overwhelming bipartisan support,” saying the representatives legitimately exercised their constitutional powers in doing so.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in (the court’s) utter failure to grasp why the (law) has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote.
It is the dissent in the Shelby case that grew Ginsburg’s following in pop culture in recent years – spurring the “Notorious RBG” moniker that morphed into a celebration of the justice’s legal career.
She wrote that “[t]hrowing 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.”
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
Some of Ginsburg’s most blistering dissents came from cases involving gender discrimination and civil rights – an issue she pioneered throughout her legal career.
In one such case, Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, in 1999 for gender discrimination after discovering that over the course of her 19-year career at the company, she had received lower compensation than her male counterparts. She won the case in federal court in 2003 and was awarded $3.8 million in back pay and damages.
The tire giant appealed and the case eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In 2007, the Supreme Court upheld a reversal of the federal court decision, ruling that because Ledbetter’s claim was made after a 180-day charging period, she could not sue her employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Railing against the all male, 5-4, majority, Ginsburg delivered a scathing dissent from the bench, a rare act by justices intended to demonstrate the strength of their disagreement. She accused the eight male justices of being indifferent to the gender pay gap.
“The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” she said, calling upon Congress to act where the court had not.
In 2018, Ledbetter recalled the role Ginsburg played in her landmark case in 2006, saying the justice’s dissent from the majority gives her chills to this day.
“I get chills and goosebumps today just thinking about it … knowing how fierce she was,” Ledbetter said.
In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that certain for-profit companies cannot be required by the government to pay for specific types of contraceptives, such as methods of birth control and emergency contraception, for their employees.
In her dissent, Ginsburg wrote the court had “ventured into a minefield,” adding it would disadvantage those employees “who do not share their employer’s religious beliefs.”
“Any decision to use contraceptives made by a woman covered under Hobby Lobby’s or Conestoga’s plan will not be propelled by the Government, it will be the woman’s autonomous choice, informed by the physician she consults,” the liberal justice wrote.
Ginsburg also noted the cost barrier that many women face in attempting to gain access to different kinds of birth control.
“It bears note in this regard that the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.”
Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate
In one of her more recent dissents, Ginsburg lambasted the court for “(leaving) women workers to fend for themselves,” in a case where the justices struck down the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
In July 2020, the court cleared the way for the Trump administration to expand exemptions for employers who have religious or moral objections to complying with the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
“Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” Ginsburg wrote in dissent.
“This court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer’s insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets,” she said and noted that the government had acknowledged that the rules would cause thousands of women – “between 70,500 and 126,400 women of childbearing age,” she wrote – to lose coverage.
When the case’s oral arguments were being heard, Ginsburg participated from a hospital bed because of a gall bladder condition. Ginsburg also announced weeks after her dissent in the case that a scan the February before revealed lesions on her liver and she had begun bi-weekly chemotherapy.
Bush v. Gore
In the election of 2000, Florida was the key to presidential victory on both sides of the aisle. The voting process in the state was a mess – with poorly designed ballots and counting irregularities abound. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore both declared victory in the state before election night was over, kicking off one of the most drawn-out election results in the nation’s history.
The election quickly went from a decision steered by vote counts to one steered by the courts.
The bitter court battle first escalated up to Florida’s Supreme Court, where a manual recount of ballots was issued. The order was appealed up to the US Supreme Court, where it was reversed and Florida’s 25 electoral votes, along with the presidency, was handed to Bush.
Though Ginsburg was not on the winning side, she did not go gentle into that good night.
”I might join the chief justice were it my commission to interpret Florida law,” Ginsburg wrote. ”The extraordinary setting of this case has obscured the ordinary principle that dictates its proper resolution: federal courts defer to state high courts’ interpretations of their state’s own law. This principle reflects the core of federalism, on which all agree.”
”Were the other members of this court as mindful as they generally are of our system of dual sovereignty,” Justice Ginsburg concluded, ”they would affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.”
But while colleagues wrote they dissented “respectfully,” as Ginsburg typically does, she said only: “I dissent.”
CNN’s Ariane de Vogue and Joan Biskupic contributed to this report.