Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to sit on the high court and the first justice in modern times to become a cultural sensation, died Friday after more than a quarter-century on the court.
She passed away at her home in Washington, D.C. surrounded by family after battling metastatic pancreas cancer.
Justice Ginsburg was 87 years old.
“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic nature,” said Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. “We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn, but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her — a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
President Trump learned of Justice Ginsburg’s death after speaking at a campaign rally in Minnesota.
“She just died? Wow. I didn’t know that. You’re telling me that for the first time,” he told reporters before boarding Air Force One at the rally site. “She led an amazing life, what else can you say? She was an amazing woman. Whether you agree or not, she led an amazing life. I am sad to hear that.”
The Brooklyn, New York-born jurist’s fans and foes took to calling her the “Notorious RBG” because of her unabashedly liberal crusades from the bench and her tendency to insert herself into partisan politics in interviews and speeches beyond the walls of the Supreme Court.
Her departure from the court creates a third opening for Mr. Trump to fill, which is more than any president since Ronald Reagan.
Democrats are likely to mount a fierce fight against whomever the president picks, with just six weeks until the Nov. 3 election, fearing that a conservative-leaning judge replacing the most prominent liberal would swing the high court more than any other nominee in decades.
Her passing will become a top election issue, as both Republicans and Democrats jockey over who will get to nominate the next justice to fill her seat.
Justice Ginsburg earned her reputation through carefully argued and fiercely written opinions — with her greatest hits usually coming in dissents prodding her colleagues to take a more expansive view of personal liberty, women’s rights and government power.
They are the causes she cut her teeth on as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, where she defended women’s rights at a time before the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution applied to sex.
“She was probably the biggest driving force behind a very successful attempt to make equal protection to include gender,” said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice.
Her fame as a justice has been unprecedented, with an unmatched crossover appeal to people far beyond the legal world.
Hagiographic movies and documentaries drew significant audiences, and T-shirts and other knick-knacks with her likeness are sold online. The American Bar Association Journal in 2018 found more than 1,000 results for RBG-related gear selling on craft website Etsy.com.
She also was included as a character, complete with robe and gavel, in “Lego Movie 2,” alongside Batman and Superman in 2019.
Irin Carmon, a co-author of the book “Notorious RBG,” called Justice Ginsburg an “unapologetic feminist.”
“Justice Ginsburg is actually pretty amused by the ‘Notorious RBG’ phenomena,” she told Larry King in 2015. “What she has said the past about it is, ‘I can’t take credit for the Notorious RBG, but I like it and so do my grandchildren.’”
Her fans grew even more adoring, and her critics even more outraged, as Mr. Trump ran for the White House and then won four years ago.
During a 2016 CNN interview, she called Mr. Trump “a faker” and complained of his ego. She issued an apology the next day.
Months later she had to apologize again after criticizing professional football players who were kneeling for the national anthem, calling it “dumb and disrespectful.”
In 2018, as the confirmation process for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh was devolving into a circus, she criticized the Senate and pointed out that even as an ACLU litigator she was confirmed in 1993 on a 96-3 vote.
She was the second woman on the court, joining then-Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Two other women, Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, have followed in the years since.
Liberals find little to criticize Justice Ginsburg for, other than her decision not to retire during the eight years of President Barack Obama’s tenure, when he might have named her replacement.
Conservatives view her as the chief spokeswoman for the “living Constitution” approach to legal reasoning, in which the founding document is seen as embodying principles that can be applied in a modern era, rather than hard-and-fast rules to be followed until voters change them.
“The idea that there should be certain constitutional principles you follow whether it leads to a result you like or don’t like, that doesn’t really occur to her,” Mr. Levey said.
Born in 1933 to an immigrant father from Ukraine and a mother who grew up in New York, she attended Harvard Law School, where she was one of only nine women.
Although a year behind her husband Martin “Marty” Ginsburg in law school, she attended both his and her classes for a period of time, taking notes for him while he battled cancer.
After law school, her husband worked as a tax lawyer in New York, but she was rejected by a number of big law firms, despite graduating at the top of her class. She found work as a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
It was during her time teaching law students that she became involved with several gender-based discrimination cases, often seeking out men as plaintiffs to advance her fight for gender equality.
She joined the ACLU in 1972, where she started the women’s rights project and argued before the Supreme Court in 1973 on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero, who was demanding a housing allowance and other benefits that at the time were given to only men in the military.
“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” Justice Ginsburg said in her 1973 argument before the court as an attorney, quoting activist Sara Grimke.
The court found the military’s benefit policy violated the U.S. Constitution.
As a justice on the high court, she authored the 1996 United States v. Virginia opinion, which struck down Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admission policy.
The 7-1 decision even won the backing of then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It was the late Justice Antonin Scalia, one of Justice Ginsburg’s close friends and fellow opera lover, who dissented from her opinion.
Carolyn Shapiro, a law professor at Kent University, called that opinion the “crowning moment for her career as a women’s rights advocate.”
“The fact that Chief Justice Rehnquist joined it … that must have been a very sweet victory for her to get his vote,” Ms. Shapiro said.
Yet Justice Ginsburg’s ferocity as a judge has shown more in her dissents.
Indeed, it was her angry opinion in a 2013 voting rights case, Shelby County, that gave rise to the Notorious RBG nickname.
The majority in the 5-4 ruling said voting discrimination still exists, but said the decades-old formula Congress used to force some states to undergo extra voting scrutiny was outdated and therefore unfair, and needed to be updated or scrapped.
Justice Ginsburg said the court “errs egregiously” in wading into the fight, saying those decisions were rightly left to the political branches. Curiously, that was a barb frequently aimed at her own jurisprudence.
She also gained fame for her dissent defending Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her employer Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. for pay discrimination.
The majority of the court held Ms. Ledbetter sued outside the statute of limitations, barring her claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Justice Ginsburg sparked Congress to step in and address wage discrimination, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in January 2009.
Flags at the White House were lowered to half-staff in honor of Justice Ginsburg, whom White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called “a trailblazer for women.”
Justice Ginsburg is survived by her two children Jane and James Ginsburg, their spouses, her four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, as well as one great-grandchild. Her husband Martin Ginsburg passed away in 2010.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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