By Esther M. Schonfeld, Esq.
“To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself but for one’s community.”
— Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
I was sworn into the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on May 27, 2003. This exciting day was made even more special when I was invited to meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers after my swearing-in ceremony. She was petite, yet immense. She was soft spoken, yet charismatic, with a powerful voice.
We discussed many things that day that I wish I could remember more clearly. One thing that stood out was our discussion about how we both went to law school with young children at home. To have something in common with her felt so empowering and put me on top of the world. It was a privilege and an honor to have met her.
Now, so sadly, we mourn her loss. While we feel the heavy loss of such an important trailblazing human being, we try to focus on celebrating her life and legacy. We mourn the loss of a woman who dedicated her life to social justice and protecting human rights. We mourn the loss of a judge who spoke of her Jewish values and the pursuit of justice. We mourn the loss of a woman who helped pave the way for female lawyers today. We mourn the loss of a woman who set goals and did not give up in the face of challenge. We mourn the loss of a woman who was a role model to so many.
Politics aside, there is little question that Justice Ginsburg was a champion of gender equality and a fighter for social justice. In her 80s, she became an improbable pop-culture icon, inspiring everything from Saturday Night Live skits, children’s books, movies, apparel and documentary films. Decades before she joined the court, Justice Ginsburg’s work as an attorney in the 1970s fundamentally changed the Supreme Court’s approach to women’s rights and men’s rights, as well.
Justice Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader on March 15, 1933, in Brooklyn, New York to Jewish parents, Nathan, who came to the United States from Russia and, Celia Amster, who was born in the United States shortly after her parents came here from Austria.
Justice Ginsburg was the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court. She was proud of her Jewish heritage and recalled, as a child, seeing a sign in front of a Pennsylvania resort that said “No dogs or Jews allowed.”
“Signs of that kind existed in this country during my childhood. One couldn’t help but be sensitive to discrimination living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II.”
Ruth Bader attended Cornell University and was a member of the Alpha Epsilon Phi Jewish sorority (Kappa chapter). After graduating in 1954 and marrying Marty Ginsburg, Ruth was accepted to Harvard Law School. Before attending Harvard, Ginsburg accepted a job at a social security office in Oklahoma, where she was discriminated against due to her pregnancy. She was demoted and had her pay cut soon after accepting the position.
The following year, she attended Harvard as one of only nine women in a class of 500 students. In 1958, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia University Law School, graduating first in her class in 1959. Despite graduating at the top of her class, she was unable to get a job. Justice Ginsburg said, “I had three strikes against me: one, I was Jewish; two, I was a woman; but the killer was, I was a mother of a four-year-old child.
Without a single job offer from a New York law firm, she accepted a clerkship with a federal judge in Manhattan and continued her career in law through academia, teaching civil procedure at Rutgers and Columbia law schools.
Before she put on her judge’s robes, Justice Ginsburg made a name for herself fighting for women’s rights. She was a co-founder and president of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972. Throughout the 70s, Justice Ginsburg appeared before the United States Supreme Court on six occasions and won five out of those six cases.
One of those cases was Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, a case involving a widower who was denied survivor benefits because Social Security rules assumed women were secondary providers, not men. Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that denying fathers’ benefits because of their gender was unconstitutional, and won a unanimous 8-0 decision in the case, securing the petitioner benefits based on his wife’s earnings.
In another case, Frontiero v. Richardson, the husband of a female lieutenant in the air force was refused military benefits based on the assumption that a man was not likely to be the dependent spouse. By an 8–1 vote, the court agreed that this gender-based rule was unconstitutional.
In Craig v. Boren, the Supreme Court struck down an Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy beer at age 18 but forbade men from doing so until they were 21 using the 14th amendment’s promise of equal protection under the law to both sexes.
In 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals and in 1993 she was appointed to the Supreme Court to fill the seat vacated by Justice Byron White. She became the second female Supreme Court justice after Sandra Day O’Connor and the first Jewish female member of the Court.
During her tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg led the court in many landmark decisions that prohibited gender discrimination, expanded the rights of women, expanded voting rights and more. Even as the court grew more conservative, and the justice battled cancer, she continued to make her point in often-cutting dissents. She even had a special collar for announcing majority opinions and another collar for her dissenting opinions.
Despite the fact that Justice Ginsburg was known as a liberal justice, she had a very close friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative Justices on the court. The two justices had disparate views on some of the most critical issues, yet they remained, in her words, “best buddies.” Their friendship showed us all that deep differences of opinion and politics should never divide us.
Justice Ginsburg famously wrote the majority opinion (U.S. v. Virginia) striking down Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admissions policy as violating the 14th amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Another notable decision was Olmstead v. L.C. in which she affirmed that individuals with mental disabilities have the right to community-based housing under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
On Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at the age of 87. She left a legacy of instilling the importance of justice, fairness, integrity, and family. She overcame adversity, antisemitism, and sexism, and fought for what she believed in, no matter the hurtle or difficulty. She served on the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court of the United States, for 27 years and never sacrificed her views on the interpretation and application of the law.
Ginsburg was a loving wife, a mother of two and an opera lover. She left an indelible mark on our history and will always be remembered as a champion of justice. Justice Ginsburg passed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, just as Shabbat was beginning. According to Jewish scholars, a person who dies so close to the end of the year and also on Shabbat is a righteous person. This could not feel more appropriate here.
I will always be grateful for that day back in 2003 when I met Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May she rest in peace and may her memory be a blessing.
Esther M. Schonfeld, Esq. is a founding partner of Schonfeld & Goldring, LLP, with offices in Cedarhurst, New York. Her law firm practices matrimonial and family law in both secular and religious courts. She is also a certified mediator and published author. She can be reached at (516) 569-5001.