Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933– )

In 1993, President Clinton appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Ginsburg is best known for her passionate advocacy of equal rights for women. In light of her pioneering efforts in the field, she has been called the “Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.” Not surprisingly, it is in the area of sex discrimination that Ginsburg has had the greatest influence on education law.

Early Years

Ginsburg was born on March 15, 1933, in an ethnically diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Her mother stressed the importance of education and played a formative role in Ruth’s upbringing. Tragically, Ginsburg’s mother died the day before her daughter’s high school graduation ceremony.

The future justice attended college at Cornell University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa and met her future husband, Martin Ginsburg. Martin entered Harvard Law School but was drafted into the army. After his discharge, the Ginsburgs returned to Harvard, where Ruth also enrolled in law school, a year behind her husband.

Ginsburg entered Harvard at a time when few women were admitted to law school. She and her fellow female students faced a hostile educational environment and at one point were asked by the dean how it felt to take seats that otherwise could have been held by deserving men. Despite the difficulties she confronted, Ginsburg excelled academically and made law review. During Ginsburg’s second year, misfortune struck when her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer that required major surgery and extensive radiation treatment. Fortunately, he recovered, and graduated on schedule. When her husband went to work for a New York City law firm, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School, where she graduated at the top of her class and again made law review, becoming the first woman to be selected for law review at two universities.

Despite Ginsburg’s high grades and strong academic background, no major law firm would hire her. Eventually, she obtained a position as a law clerk position with a federal district court judge. After completing her clerkship, Ginsburg worked for Columbia University on a comparative civil law project, coauthoring a book on Swedish judicial procedure.

Law Career

In 1963, Ginsburg was hired as a faculty member at Rutgers University. While teaching at Rutgers, Ginsburg began assisting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in sex discrimination litigation. In one case, she worked with women schoolteachers who were required to quit their jobs when they became pregnant; they sought the right to maternity leave. In 1972, Ginsburg joined the faculty as a professor at Columbia University, where she became the first woman to be granted tenure by the law school. While teaching at Columbia, Ginsburg also served as general counsel for the ACLU and in 1972 was named the head of its Women’s Rights Project.

During Ginsburg’s association with the ACLU, she was involved in some of the most important sex discrimination litigation in Supreme Court history. In Ginsburg’s first major case, she assisted in writing the ACLU’s amicus brief in the case of Reed v. Reed (1971), in which the Supreme Court struck down an Idaho statute granting an automatic preference for men over women in the administration of decedents’ estates.

In the 1970s, Ginsburg argued major sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, five of which she won. In Frontiero v. Richardson (1973), Ginsburg successfully challenged the government’s discriminatory practices in awarding benefits to spouses of military personnel based on their gender. In Craig v. Boren (1976), she filed an amicus brief that was instrumental in the Court’s striking down Oklahoma’s statute allowing females to purchase beer at the age of 18 but requiring males to be 21. Ginsburg was unsuccessful in convincing the Court that “strict scrutiny” should be the proper standard to apply in gender discrimination cases. However, in Craig v. Boren, the Court adopted a “midlevel” heightened-scrutiny test requiring laws that classified on the basis of sex be substantially related to an important government objective. This elevated level of judicial review has since become the standard applied by courts in sex discrimination cases.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. During her tenure as a federal appellate court judge, she gained a reputation as a hardworking jurist who paid attention to detail and drafted well-reasoned opinions. In 1993, President Clinton nominated Ginsburg to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the resignation of Justice Byron White. The American Bar Association awarded Ginsburg its highest rating, and with bipartisan support from both parties, her appointment was easily confirmed by the Senate.

Supreme Court Record

On the Court, Justice Ginsburg has been an active participant in oral arguments and is known for asking attorneys probing questions. Unlike some of her fellow justices, she is a frequent lecturer and continues to express her commitment to civil liberties and women’s issues. However, as a liberal on a generally conservative Rehnquist, and now Roberts, Court, Ginsburg’s influence has been limited, and her role is often that of forceful dissenter.

Appropriately, the major school law decision that Ginsburg authored is in the sex discrimination case of United States v. Virginia (1996). Writing for the majority, Ginsburg ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s single-sex admissions policy denied women the right of equal protection of the laws under the Fourteenth Amendment.

On Establishment Clause issues, Justice Ginsburg has consistently taken a separationist position. In Mitchell v. Helms (2000), Agostini v. Felton (1997), and Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002), she voted against expanding the use of public funds to assist religiously affiliated private schools. In Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995), she dissented from holdings that granted religious organizations access to public school facilities and funding for printing of a Christian group’s newsletter. In Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2002), Ginsburg joined the Court’s opinion that a board policy of allowing student-led prayers on the public address system at high school football games violated the Establishment Clause.

In the area of student drug testing, Justice Ginsburg joined in the Court’s decision allowing drug testing for athletes in the case of Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton (1995). However, in the case of Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls (2002), she dissented from extending random drug testing to students engaged in any extracurricular activity.

Ginsburg has been supportive of affirmative action. In Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995), she dissented from the Court’s decision rejecting awarding preferences to minorities in federal construction projects. In the two University of Michigan disputes, Gratz v. Bollinger (2003) and Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), Ginsburg voted to uphold both undergraduate and law school programs that had taken race into account as a factor in the admission of minority students.

Although Justice Ginsburg has not authored a large number of opinions in the area of education law, her impact has been significant. In light of Ginsburg’s landmark efforts in the field of gender equality, the legal status and the rights of women, including those of female students and faculty, have been greatly expanded.

Michael Yates

See also Equal Protection Analysis; United States v. Virginia

Further Readings

  • Campbell, A. L. (2004). Raising the bar: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. Philadelphia: Xlibris. 
  • Perry, B. A. (1999). The Supremes: Essays on the current justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Peter Lang. 

Legal Citations

  • Adarand Constructors v. Pena, 515 U.S. 200 (1995). 
  • Agostini v. Felton, 521 U.S. 203 (1997). 
  • Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 of Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 536 U.S. 822 (2002), on remand, 300 F.3d 1222 (10th Cir. 2002). 
  • Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976). 
  • Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973). 
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 21 F. Supp.2d 147 (N.D.N.Y. 1998); aff’d, 202 F.3d 502 (2d Cir. 2000); 533 U.S. 98 (2001). 
  • Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244 (2003). 
  • Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003). 
  • Mitchell v. Helms, 530 U.S. 793 (2000), reh’g denied, 530 U.S. 1296 (2000), on remand sub nom. Helms v. Picard, 229 F.3d 467 (5th Cir. 2000). 
  • Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971). 
  • Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995). 
  • Sante Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2002). 
  • Vernonia School District 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646 (1995). 
  • United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996). 
  • Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002).