By Suzannah Young
The loss of Ruth Bader Ginsberg on Sept. 18 was not only the loss of a supreme court judge - it was the loss of a cultural legacy.
“It's stunning how she became a cultural icon,” said Sean Foreman, Barry’s chair of the political science department. “The fact that people wear t-shirts or jewelry just to look like her. She truly was a trailblazer in the legal field.”
While Ginsberg has been undeniably popular in recent years, the second female supreme court justice made decisions that would influence American life throughout the entirety of her career.
Ginsberg began her legal career at Harvard, where she was one of only a handful of women in her class.
“She went to school at a time when women really weren't going to law schools - when they were even challenged for taking the place that should have gone to a man,” said Dr. Leah Blumenfeld, political science professor. “It was definitely pioneering in that she was able to pursue her career and still have her family.”
Ginsberg met her would be husband, Martin Ginsberg, at Harvard and when he transferred to Columbia Law school, she went along with him.
Blumenfield explains that Ginsberg had to fight for her transfer, and how this kick-started her career as an advocate for not only women’s rights, but also familial and equal rights.
“Her success opened doors and showed that it was possible for women, especially, but also for other couples to not have to make those hard choices [between having a career or having a family] but to find a balance,” Blumenfeld said.
Ginsberg graduated from Columbia at the top of her class in 1959, and continued with her focus on sex discrimination, as she struggled with the issue in her own life and saw it as a larger problem in American society.
“[After graduating] she reached out to every major law firm in New York City, and no one would hire her because she was a woman,” Foreman said. “That’s what makes her unique. She was one of the first woman to graduate from a major law school and try to break into the big firms.
Ginsburg began her legal career teaching at Rutgers Law School and then moved onto Columbia University. Following her time as a professor, she became director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, and then was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
“Her work with the American Civil Liberties Union is where she really built her reputation as being a champion for those whose civil liberties had been repressed or had not been treated equally,” Blumenfeld said. “She mostly argued sex-based cases, but she was not completely limited to that.”
Her big break came in 1993, however, when she became the first woman ever nominated to the supreme court by a democrat - Bill Clinton - because of what Foreman refers to as “her profound legal career.”
“She had decades of defending rights that weren't previously protected,” Foreman said. “In particular, [she dealt with] women, but she also focused on other minority groups, gay rights, and the environment.”
In the Supreme Court, Ginsberg continued to be a passionate advocate for marginalized groups. From one of her first landmark cases in United States v. Virginia (1996), where she wrote an opinion that would allow females to attend the Virginia Military Institute, all the way up to 2016 when she voted on the court decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
Blumenfeld also points out the influence Ginsberg had in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2013) when the court ruled that the store could deny contraceptive coverage to its employees based on its religious affiliation.
“Her dissent in the Hobby Lobby case was also a really important one,” Blumenfeld said. “She wrote that the court had gotten this wrong, and it was really denying women their liberty and allowing employers to dictate very personal and private decisions.”
Despite having won many battles in her career, Foreman points out that her greatest legacy was perhaps the battles that she didn’t win.
“I think she's more famous for her sharp dissent where she disagreed with the majority opinion,” Foreman said. “When she pointed out where the court might be getting something wrong is where her influence will live on.”
While her sharp wit and cultural influence undoubtedly prospered in the final years of her career, there is no doubting her untimely death.
Only days before her passing, the Supreme Court Justice was quoted saying, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is instilled.”
President Trump denied that wish when he announced on Sept. 26 – only a week after the death of Ginsburg – that he would be replacing her with conservative judge Amy Coney Barrett.
While the need to replace Ginsburg with another female judge may have been obvious, the similarities between the legacy and her replacement are scant.
Barrett's legal opinions and remarks on abortion and gay marriage are more in line with the religious right.
“President Trump can say he replaced a woman with a woman and tout that, but [Barrett] is someone of completely different ideological views,” Foreman said. “Frankly, liberals would have been happy with anybody else who has more moderate views.”
Similarly, Blumenfeld agrees that Barrett was probably not the best replacement for Ginsburg, but also makes the point that she was probably meant to ‘counter’ Ginsburg in some ways.
"[Barrett] certainly solidifies a major shift to a more conservative ideology and legal approach that counters decades of progressive activism on the court as symbolized by Ginsburg,” Blumenfeld said.
Barrett is a devout Catholic but, according to the BBC, has repeatedly insisted her faith does not compromise her work.
Originally from New Orleans, Barrett now makes her home in South Bend, Indiana, with her husband who is a former federal prosecutor. The couple have seven children, including two adopted from Haiti. She studied at the University of Notre Dame's Law School, graduating first in her class, and was a clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia.
Barrett is said to be an originalist as was Scalia. This means she believes that judges should attempt to interpret the words of the Constitution as the authors intended when they were written.
Many liberals oppose that strict approach, saying there must be scope for moving with the times.
Although Barrett characterizes a noticeable lack of commonality with her predecessor, there is no denying that filling Ginsburg’s seat would be a tough job for anyone.
"Ginsburg is hard to replace simply because of the length of her career and how pioneering it was,” Blumenfeld said. “[Barrett’s] not going to live up to Ginsburg's legacy – at least not in the short term.”