Watch Justice Ginsburg get sworn in

On August 10, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the first Jewish female and second female justice to serve in the Supreme Court. For more on Justice Ginsburg, watch CNN Films' "RBG" on Monday, September 3 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Posted: Aug 14, 2018 9:48 AM
Updated: Aug 14, 2018 9:55 AM

There is something in the current "Notorious RBG" fervor that offers the perfect paradox for a woman whose early career was marked by rejection and work in the trenches of anti-discrimination law.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's superstardom has not been fleeting, precisely because of what she did before and what she represents today.

She made the law review at both Harvard and Columbia law schools and graduated at the top of her class at Columbia. Yet she was rejected for the most prestigious judicial clerkships and spurned by law firms. It was not just that she was a woman. She was also a mother caring for a young daughter.

But that was nearly six decades ago, and on Friday, Ginsburg marks the 25th anniversary of her judicial oath on the US Supreme Court.

When she failed to land a law firm job, she turned to teaching, then became a women's rights lawyer and eventually won a federal appeals court seat. As a Supreme Court justice since 1993, she has authored scores of opinions that have helped set the course of the law, particularly on equality rights. She wrote the landmark ruling that forced the state-run Virginia Military Institute to admit women.

Now it is her scorching dissents that draw most public attention.

Popular culture has embraced the RBG phenomenon, perhaps because the woman who crusaded against sex discrimination is now a vocal dissenter on a high court that is becoming increasingly conservative.

She is also an original member of what is today's #MeToo movement, recounting her own experiences as a pathbreaking woman on campus and in the workforce.

The "Notorious RBG" meme, a play on the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., was created as a response to a 2013 dissent Ginsburg wrote when the court majority issued a milestone decision rolling back voting-rights protections. Ginsburg's dissents continue to energize Democrats, at a time when Republicans control the executive and legislative branches of government and the Supreme Court moves rightward.

From films to action figures, the entertainment world has shown a fascination with the trailblazer who changed the course of women's rights and at age 85 still pumps iron.

The documentary "RBG," co-produced by CNN, has made $13.5 million at the box office, according to comScore, and will be broadcast next month on the network. Oscar nominee Felicity Jones will play her in a feature film, "On the Basis of Sex," in December.

The justice said recently that she hopes to stay on the Supreme Court at least five more years, when she'll be 90. She has survived two bouts with cancer, colorectal in 1999 and pancreatic in 2009.

Ginsburg's celebrity might not have been predicted when President Bill Clinton chose her for the high court in summer 1993.

Then a 60-year-old federal appellate judge, she was not Clinton's first choice. He was looking for a flashier appointee and initially tried to woo former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo to the bench.

Ginsburg, with her large-rimmed glasses, hair tied back in a short ponytail, presented the picture of seriousness. She spoke of taking "measured motions" as a jurist. Supporters portrayed her as a night owl who spent hours hunched over law books and legal briefs, tepid coffee and prunes at hand. Her daughter created a little book titled "Mommy Laughed," chronicling the few times it happened.

Once on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was a sharp questioner and meticulous opinion-writer. She leaned in but without the attention-getting style of the first female justice, Sandra Day O'Connor, or gregarious longtime pal Antonin Scalia.

She was hardly a liberal in the mode of contemporary justices on the left: William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall or Harry Blackmun. But as the court changed over the years and became more conservative with each retirement, she found herself carrying the banner for the left.

It is the lesson of Ginsburg's eight decades -- marked by early loss and professional rejection -- that life's vicissitudes can open unexpected doors and bring new opportunities.

Now carrying a commercial tote bag with the words "I dissent," she appreciates her icon status. But she still conveys a modest approach. When asked recently during a public appearance how she wanted to be remembered, she said, "As someone who did the best she could."

Early life marked by death

Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn in 1933, the second daughter of Celia and Nathan Bader. Her older sister, who gave Ruth the nickname of "Kiki," died of meningitis before Ruth was 2 years old. (The justice's real name was Joan Ruth Bader, but she said that because so many girls in her kindergarten class were named Joan, her mother asked that she be called Ruth.)

Her mother encouraged her to excel in school. But she would not live to see her daughter's early achievements. Just before Ruth was to graduate from high school with honors, her mother died of cervical cancer. Ruth missed graduation, staying home with her grieving father, and her teachers delivered her various awards to her after the ceremony.

She attended Cornell University on scholarship as a government major. There she met Martin Ginsburg, whom she would later describe as the first boy who "cared that I had a brain."

They married in 1954 and the following year had their first child, Jane. A second child, James, was born 10 years later.

Ruth and Martin attended Harvard Law School. Ruth began when Jane was a baby, and soon was caring also for Martin, who had been diagnosed with testicular cancer.

She typed up his class notes and helped with his studies, learning to exist on very little sleep, as she kept up with her own studies and attended to daughter Jane. Martin recovered, graduated and landed a job in New York City in 1958.

By that point, Ruth had finished two of the three years of law school. When they moved to New York, she completed her law degree at Columbia University. She graduated in 1959, tied for first place in her class.

She was rebuffed for a Supreme Court clerkship by Justice Felix Frankfurter because she was a woman and then was turned down by major New York law firms. She later wrote that law firms in the 1950s were beginning to hire Jews. "They had just gotten over that form of discrimination," she wrote. "But to be a Jew, a woman and a mother to boot," she wrote, "that combination was a bit much."

She became a law clerk to a federal district court judge, then worked at Columbia as a researcher. Her early specialty was civil procedure, and she spent several months in Sweden in the early 1960s studying its legal procedures.

The women's rights movement beckons

While Ginsburg was teaching at Rutgers Law School, from 1963 to 1972, her interest in sexual equality was sparked by the broader women's rights movement underway. In the early 1970s, she has said in interviews, she realized how few court rulings, commentary and teaching materials covered sex discrimination. In 1972, she returned to Columbia University law school as a professor, the first woman to be named to a tenured position. That year, she also helped found the American Civil Liberties Union's Women's Rights Project.

She argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five. Her strategy was distinctive. Rather than use only women as plaintiffs to challenge discriminatory government practices, she often chose men.

In an important 1975 case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, the Supreme Court struck down a Social Security law that provided survivors' benefits for widows with small children but not for widowers with small children.

"The whole ACLU Women's Rights Project -- it would not have been possible 10 years earlier," Ginsburg said in a 2016 interview.

She said she felt that she was also in the right place in late 1979, when a spot suddenly opened on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Judge Harold Leventhal, then 64, died after suffering a heart attack. "Who could have predicted that?" Ginsburg said. "He was playing tennis."

President Jimmy Carter nominated Ginsburg to the DC Circuit, and she was approved by the Senate in 1980. Ginsburg said later that she had been hoping for a seat on the New York-based 2nd Circuit, where she and Martin were living. But it was fortuitous that she ended up on the DC Circuit, which has become a steppingstone to the high court.

She and Martin, a prominent tax lawyer, moved to Washington, where he began teaching at Georgetown University law school. (Martin died in 2010 of cancer.)

On the influential appeals court that specializes in federal regulatory disputes, Ginsburg was an exacting jurist and moderate liberal. She became close friends with Scalia, whom President Ronald Reagan appointed to the DC Circuit in 1982 and then to the Supreme Court in 1986. Ideological opposites but both former law professors, they enjoyed editing each other's opinions. Opera lovers and avid travelers, they socialized regularly and, with their spouses, began a tradition of spending New Year's Eve together.

When Justice Byron White announced his retirement in 1993, Clinton considered several possible candidates, including Cuomo, who decided against what seemed to be the cloistered life of the court. Top aides thought Clinton was then ready to select Judge Stephen Breyer (whom Clinton chose the next year when another vacancy occurred).

Attorney General Janet Reno had been pushing Clinton to meet with Ginsburg. Nearly three months after White had made his retirement known, the President interviewed Ginsburg on June 13.

The next day he formally nominated her in a Rose Garden ceremony. Ginsburg's life story and background in women's rights appealed to Clinton, who when announcing the selection emphasized that law firms had rejected Ginsburg because she was a woman raising a child.

He said she represented to women's legal rights what Thurgood Marshall "was to the movement for the rights of African-Americans."

When she accepted the nomination, Ginsburg said of her late mother, "I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons."

Ginsburg was approved by the Senate 96-3 on August 3 and took the judicial oath on August 10, becoming the first justice appointed by a Democratic president in 26 years; the last had been Marshall, named by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967.

A high court evolution

On the Supreme Court, Ginsburg has been best known for her opinions related to civil rights. In her first term, as she joined an opinion (written by O'Connor) that enhanced workers' ability to prove job discrimination based on sexual harassment, Ginsburg added a concurring statement that underscored the unequal treatment of women in the workplace.

"The critical issue," she wrote in in Harris v. Forklift Systems, "is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed."

In 1996, she wrote the court's opinion forcing the state-run Virginia Military Institute to admit women. She said the state's military school "serves the state's sons" yet "makes no provision whatever for her daughters. That is not equal protection" as required by the Constitution. The vote was 7-1; only Scalia dissented. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose son attended VMI, did not participate.

In 2017, VMI honored Ginsburg. During a speech to the school's cadets, she observed that opposition to the Supreme Court ruling had faded when the school saw "how much good women could do for the institution."

The VMI decision may have been a high-water mark for her on behalf of a court majority. Many of Ginsburg's civil rights opinions have been, by and large, written as a dissenter.

Since 2010 and the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, Ginsburg has been the most senior liberal justice and a robust voice for the left. Her 2013 dissent in a case invalidating a major portion of the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v. Holder, inspired the Notorious RBG meme, the viral social media brainchild of Shana Knizhnik, then a New York University law student. Mugs and all manner of other retail tchotchkes followed.

She continues to speak boldly through her dissents, but also during interviews. In July 2016, she complained to reporters for The Associated Press and The New York Times about then-candidate Donald Trump, saying she could not take him seriously, and kidded that if he won she might move to New Zealand. Critics said such remarks could undermine her appearance of judicial impartiality.

When asked her if she regretted her sentiment, she only ramped it up. "He is a faker," she told CNN. "He has no consistency about him. He says whatever comes into his head at the moment. He really has an ego. ... How has he gotten away with not turning over his tax returns? The press seems to be very gentle with him on that."

Trump jumped into the fray, saying "her mind is shot" and that she should resign. Ginsburg ended up putting out a statement, regretting her "ill-advised" remark and vowing to "be more circumspect."

The day after the November 2016 election, she wore over her black robe the collar (black with silver crystals) she reserves for days in which she issues a dissenting opinion.

Experiences that continue to resonate

While she has since avoided addressing the Trump presidency beyond her judicial opinions, she has continued to speak on the issues of the day. Earlier this year, at the Sundance Film Festival, she praised the #MeToo movement. "I think it's about time," she said. "For so long, women were silent."

She recounted an episode from her days at Cornell, as she prepared for a chemistry test. "My instructor said ... 'I'll give you a practice exam,'" Ginsburg said. The next day she discovered that the practice exam was, in fact, the real test.

"And I knew exactly what he wanted in return," she said. "I went to (the instructor's) office and said, 'How dare you? How dare you?' And that was the end of it."

In an earlier interview, she told me that as a law professor she had trouble getting male colleagues to listen to her. "I don't know how many meetings I attended in the '60s and the '70s, where I would say something, and I thought it was a pretty good idea. ... Then somebody else would say exactly what I said. Then people would become alert to it, respond to it."

That still occurred when she became a justice, she told me in a 2009 interview. "It can happen even in the conferences in the court. When I will say something ... and it isn't until somebody else says it that everyone will focus on the point."

Her direct, even defiant, approach has boosted her profile, even as she says she hopes for less division on the Supreme Court.

She remains an optimist. "I have been lucky at every turn," she says, adding that it may have been for the better that she never landed the law firm positions she sought.

"I would have been long retired from a law firm," rather than in a life-tenured position on the nation's highest court. "Things that look bad at the time can turn out to be the greatest thing."

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 445047

Reported Deaths: 5955
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin924911470
Ramsey39703735
Dakota32788331
Anoka30811360
Washington20004225
Stearns17775185
St. Louis13546240
Scott1189996
Wright11548102
Olmsted1035775
Sherburne815765
Carver691436
Clay648478
Rice600166
Kandiyohi552871
Blue Earth538033
Crow Wing479673
Otter Tail453464
Chisago449732
Benton416785
Winona386246
Douglas372466
Nobles366746
Mower362328
Goodhue343657
Polk327756
McLeod323144
Morrison310043
Beltrami308746
Lyon299835
Itasca282643
Becker281738
Isanti281141
Carlton278143
Steele27119
Pine265113
Freeborn241320
Todd230929
Nicollet223336
Brown213734
Mille Lacs212845
Le Sueur208515
Cass206123
Meeker198533
Waseca188816
Martin169126
Wabasha16883
Roseau165316
Hubbard148338
Redwood139227
Renville136539
Houston135313
Dodge13304
Chippewa130832
Cottonwood126518
Fillmore12215
Wadena119416
Rock109512
Sibley10797
Aitkin107133
Watonwan10618
Faribault104615
Pennington97715
Kanabec97218
Pipestone93823
Yellow Medicine93314
Murray8655
Jackson85010
Swift83018
Pope7355
Marshall70115
Stevens6978
Clearwater68514
Lac qui Parle65616
Lake62915
Wilkin6229
Koochiching59010
Lincoln4821
Big Stone4543
Unassigned43468
Grant4257
Norman4228
Mahnomen4087
Kittson37019
Red Lake3164
Traverse2473
Lake of the Woods1801
Cook1130

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 303065

Reported Deaths: 4267
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk45335447
Linn17673274
Scott15356163
Black Hawk13648236
Woodbury12945175
Johnson1202149
Dubuque11300149
Pottawattamie8934112
Dallas881171
Story863434
Webster467471
Cerro Gordo462968
Sioux453356
Clinton448361
Warren437538
Marshall425561
Buena Vista391529
Muscatine386177
Des Moines380641
Plymouth348868
Wapello340898
Jasper319658
Lee313530
Marion301752
Jones269649
Henry263230
Carroll253034
Bremer242048
Crawford228122
Boone216217
Washington214231
Benton208544
Jackson190831
Mahaska190736
Tama185657
Dickinson184226
Delaware172236
Kossuth170543
Clay166019
Wright162724
Fayette159522
Buchanan158023
Hamilton157829
Winneshiek154819
Harrison154462
Hardin153929
Cedar151419
Clayton150748
Butler146424
Page143715
Cherokee138127
Floyd137936
Mills136016
Lyon133632
Poweshiek132324
Hancock128824
Allamakee126827
Iowa122822
Calhoun12209
Grundy120026
Jefferson119524
Madison11869
Winnebago118229
Mitchell115634
Louisa114130
Cass112541
Chickasaw110512
Emmet110231
Sac110215
Appanoose109638
Union108122
Humboldt104219
Guthrie102224
Shelby101326
Franklin101218
Unassigned9210
Palo Alto9019
Keokuk84325
Montgomery84022
Howard82519
Monroe80518
Clarke7817
Pocahontas77211
Ida73830
Greene6887
Davis68721
Adair68620
Lucas6468
Osceola6349
Monona63316
Worth5983
Taylor5919
Fremont5036
Van Buren49412
Decatur4784
Ringgold4269
Wayne41421
Audubon4108
Adams2953
Rochester/St. Mary'S
Cloudy
22° wxIcon
Hi: 23° Lo: 20°
Feels Like: 22°
Mason City
Mostly Cloudy
17° wxIcon
Hi: 25° Lo: 17°
Feels Like: 6°
Albert Lea
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 22° Lo: 16°
Feels Like: 15°
Austin
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 23° Lo: 17°
Feels Like: 15°
Charles City
Cloudy
21° wxIcon
Hi: 25° Lo: 18°
Feels Like: 13°
A big temperature swing is on the way
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Latest Video

Image

Saturday's local highlights and scores

Image

John Marshall ready for 2021

Image

Is the City of Rochester paying men and women equally?

Image

LWVMN asks for "truth and consequences" for state lawmakers

Image

Sports Overtime Part 2

Image

Sports Overtime Part 1

Image

Plans for polar plunge

Image

Equal work and equal pay.

Image

Aaron's Friday Night Forecast

Image

Mega Millions jackpot soars to $750 million

Community Events