A Brief Biography of Justice Ginsburg

A Brief Biography of Justice Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered a legal world where the best jobs were off-limits to women and emerged as a Supreme Court Justice.  Born in Brooklyn, Justice Ginsburg received her B.A. from Cornell and arrived at Columbia in 1958 after completing two years at Harvard Law School. Her husband, Martin Ginsburg, had taken a job at a Manhattan law firm, and they moved to New York with their young daughter, Jane, now a Columbia law professor. (Her son, James, president of Cedille Records in Chicago, was born in 1965.) While Ruth Ginsburg was at Harvard, the dean asked the nine women of her class why they were taking places that could have gone to men. At Columbia, Justice Ginsburg recalls, "Dean Warren didn't ask any questions. He just accepted me." Fellow student Richard Givens '59, who tied with Justice Ginsburg for top honors in their graduating class, remembers her as "very brilliant, incisive, quick and thoughtful."

Although she was a top student and a Law Review editor, Justice Ginsburg despaired of receiving a job offer at graduation. "A Jew, a woman, and a mother, that was a bit much. Three strikes put me out of the game," she said in an earlier interview. Yet these hurdles shaped her determination to extend the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause to women. Finally, after countless rejections from law firms and judges, Judge Edmund L. Palmieri '29 took her on as a law clerk.

In 1961, Justice Ginsburg returned to Columbia to join Professor Hans Smit's '58 project on International Civil Procedure. She learned Swedish as preparation for writing, together with a Swedish judge, a book on  Sweden's legal system. Columbia, however, did not offer her a faculty position, and Justice Ginsburg went to Rutgers where she taught law for nine years. Then, in 1972, Dean Michael Sovern '55 invited her to accept a position at Columbia, and she became the Law School's first tenured woman professor.

In the 1960s, Justice Ginsburg embarked upon her career of advocating for ordinary people caught in the vise of gender discrimination. A founder in 1972 of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project, she took on gender discrimination cases for women and men to draw attention to the pitfalls for both sexes of gender-based laws. She went to the Supreme Court to argue that a married female Air Force lieutenant needed the same housing and medical benefits as her male colleagues, and that a young widower deserved the same Social Security payments to support his infant son that a widow would have received. She won five of the six gender discrimination cases she argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. Her efforts to overturn gender discrimination continued at Columbia where, Prof. Smit recalls, "She was a superstar. She was the only member of the faculty who taught the law that she created. Her classes were so great because she was really telling her life story."

In 1980, Justice Ginsburg was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In her 13 years on the federal bench, she developed a reputation as a "centrist," a conciliator and a peacemaker on the court. Defying the labels "liberal" or "conservative," she expressed her admiration for judges who were "independent thinking individuals with open, but not drafty, minds." President Bill Clinton nominated her as Associate Justice in 1993.