Ruth Bader Ginsburg at UR

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: UR faculty offer insight on the legacy of RBG

September 28, 2020

Law

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Sept. 18, she left behind a legacy forged by a lifelong fight against gender discrimination. Several UR faculty members in political science and law, who have studied Ginsburg as part of their scholarship, recently weighed in on her life’s work, both as a lawyer and a jurist.   

Jennifer Bowie, an associate professor of political science, teaches a senior seminar course called “Notorious RBG: Gender Discrimination and the Courts.” She explained how Ginsburg became a champion of gender equality and offered her thoughts on some of the key moments in the life of the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court.

Bowie recalled Ginsburg’s time as a law professor and director of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she championed equal rights in arguments in front of the Supreme Court.  

“Up until the 1970s, there was not a law that discriminated based on gender that the Court struck down as unconstitutional. For the Court, the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause did not include women,” Bowie said. “She would bring forth cases where men were the litigants and had been discriminated against. She argued that these laws, which discriminated against men, were based on stereotypes about women, and thus gender discrimination harms both men and women. By taking this approach she was able to convince the Court that gender discrimination violates the Constitution. She won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as a young attorney.”

Not only would she write these poignant dissenting opinions often calling out the Court majority, but she would also read them from the bench, word for word, making everyone listen to what she had to say.
headshot of Jennifer Bowie
Jennifer Bowie

Associate Professor of Political Science

Nominated by to the Supreme Court in 1993, she would go on to write her most notable decision in the United States v. Virginia, where the Court opened the doors to female cadets at the Virginia Military Institute because the all-male admission policy at the school violated the 14th Amendment.

 “What many may not know is that Justice O’Connor was originally assigned to write the opinion in the VMI case,” Bowie said, “but Justice O’Connor would not take on the opinion assignment. Rather she said that Justice Ginsburg should be the one to write the opinion given her life’s work in fighting gender discrimination. Building on her work as an advocate, Ginsburg noted in her opinion that the exclusion of all women into VMI was based on outdated gender distinctions. Ginsburg noted that some women could complete the rigorous training at VMI, and she pointed to the successes of women in the armed forces and to categorically exclude all women runs afoul to the Constitution.”

Ginsburg was well known for her powerful dissents as well, on abortion rights, equal pay, voting rights, and access to contraception, among other issues, which earned her the nickname “Notorious RBG.”

“Not only would she write these poignant dissenting opinions often calling out the Court majority,” Bowie said, “but she would also read them from the bench, word for word, making everyone listen to what she had to say.”

Judicial expert Carl Tobias, Williams Chair in law, was quoted in dozens of media outlets in the days following Ginsburg’s death about potential nominees and the future of the Supreme Court. Speaking with The Guardian, Tobias described a markedly different Supreme Court without Ginsburg on the bench.

“They’ve whittled away at abortion ever since Roe v. Wade, but now I think they may well overturn it,” Tobias said. “Certainly they will hollow it out even more than it is now so that almost any restrictions probably will pass muster with the Supreme Court with that kind of majority. They could even undo marriage equality, even though it would take an enormous lift to do that, it’s conceivable that could happen, or hollow that out too, restrict it as much as possible and leave it to the states or something of that sort.”

In a recent Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed, Corinna Barrett Lain, a Richmond law professor, wrote that Ginsburg “was one of those people who comes along once in a very great while and literally changes the course of history — a titan of the law whose accomplishments only were matched by the sheer difficulty of the challenges she faced along the way.”

Lain noted that Ginsburg was first in her class at law school, yet she couldn’t secure a clerkship. “A mentor did some arm-twisting and she managed to get a spot,” Lain wrote. “Her judge came to admire and respect her, keeping her two years rather than the typical one.”

She became a law professor at Rutgers when there were only 20 female professors in the United States but was paid less than her male colleagues. Later she joined the faculty at the Columbia School of Law.

“Time and again, RBG found herself face to face with a brick wall,” Lain wrote. “Her signature move was to keep banging her head against it until the wall finally crumbled. The life story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a story of exceptional intellect, an abiding sense of justice and sheer determination to make change.”