Story at a glance

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
  • Ginsburg was the second woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • Known popularly as the “Notorious RBG,” she became a symbol of female defiance.

According to Jewish tradition, a person who dies on the day before Rosh Hashanah, which began at sunset on Sept.18, is a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at 87 on the last day of the Jewish calendar year from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. The second woman on the Supreme Court had a life full of firsts: the first woman to be on two major law reviews also tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School, where she became the first tenured woman professor and co-founded the first law journal in the United States to focus exclusively on women's rights. But even after becoming the first Jewish woman on the Court, it was clear she was not yet done. 


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After her oral argument in her last case as an attorney before the Supreme Court, Justice William Rehnquist asked her, “You won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar?”

She told the Washington Post she wanted to respond, "We won't settle for tokens” — but held her tongue. In interviews for the 2018 documentary "RBG,” directors said she told them, “Well, I didn’t get angry. That would be self defeating.”

But Ginsburg was determined to get the last word. On the court she became known for her fiery minority opinions, pulling no punches despite friendships with justices, including conservative Antonin Scalia. 

"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,” she wrote in her dissent to the ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. 


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She lived to see some of her minority opinions become mainstream, but her defense of women’s reproductive rights remains controversial.

“I think it’s inescapable that the court gave the anti-abortion forces a single target to aim at,” she said in 2013. “The unelected judges decided this question for the country, and never mind that the issue was in flux in the state legislatures.”

When asked in 2015 what she would like to be remembered for, Ginsburg told Irin Carmon, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.”

Ginsburg could not escape politics even at the end. Within minutes of the news of her death, Americans were considering the implications on the November presidential election and the future of the Supreme Court. 

But the Notorious RBG, as she was known in popular culture, had never shied away from a fight. Just days earlier, she told her granddaughter Clara Spera, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” 


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Published on Sep 19, 2020