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17 of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s most memorable Supreme Court rulings

During her nearly three decades on the high court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court opinions gave voice to women fighting for equal rights and opportunities. As a young lawyer, she argued a number of key gender equality cases in the courts before eventually being nominated to a federal appeals court in 1980 and then the Supreme Court in 1993.

During her early years on the court, Ginsburg was one of two women justices. After Sandra Day O’Connor’s retirement in 2006, Ginsburg spent several years as the court’s lone female voice.

RBG fought all throughout her life for not just women’s rights, but the rights of all humans. In an interview with NPR, she explained the legal theory that she made her mission:  “The words of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause — ‘nor shall any state deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.’ Well that word, ‘any person,’ covers women as well as men. And the Supreme Court woke up to that reality in 1971.”

Ginsburg’s own last words are a reminder of everything that is at stake upon her death. Days before her passing, she dictated to her daughter the following: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

1. Moritz v. Commissioner, 1972

Known more colloquially as the backstory to “On the Basis of Sex,” this monumental case headed by Ginsburg was brought before the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in which the Court held that discrimination on the basis of sex constitutes a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.

RBG defended Charles E. Moritz, a single man caring for his elder mother who was denied a caregiver’s tax deduction. The law only allowed this deduction for women or married men, and Moritz was neither. By focusing on how gender-based discrimination hurt a male, RBG was able to make the courts take an unprecedented stand.

The decision to extend the caregiver deduction to single men was historical, as it confirmed that the tax code conflicted with the Equal Protection Clause of the US Constitution. This one single case cast an enormous shadow of doubt over hundreds of US laws and their potential unconstitutionality.

2. Reed v. Reed, 1971

The first brief that RGB wrote for the Supreme Court would end up becoming a historic one.

Ginsburg represented Sally Reed in the Reed v. Reed case. Sally was going to court because she thought she should be the executor of her son’s estate instead of her ex-husband. The core matter of the case was whether a court could automatically give preference to a man over a woman as executors of estates.

RBG fought all throughout her life for not just women’s rights, but the rights of all humans.

The Supreme Court’s decision? No.

Quite literally, the ruling outlined that the administrators of estates cannot be named in a way that discriminates between sexes. That became the first time ever that a court struck down a state law because of gender-based discrimination.

In a unanimous decision, the Court held that the law’s dissimilar treatment of men and women was unconstitutional.

The Court argued that “[t]o give a mandatory preference to members of either sex over members of the other, merely to accomplish the elimination of hearings on the merits, is to make the very kind of arbitrary legislative choice forbidden by the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. . .[T]he choice in this context may not lawfully be mandated solely on the basis of sex.”

[Image Description: RBG on the stand in the movie 'On the Basis of Sex'] Via IMDB.
[Image Description: RBG on the stand in the movie ‘On the Basis of Sex’] Via IMDB.

3. Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973

RBG argued as amicus in this case in Sharron Frontiero’s favor. This case was a landmark the United States Supreme Court case that decided that benefits given by the United States military to the family of service members cannot be given out differently because of sex.

At the time, members of the military were “entitled to an increased basic allowance for quarters” and “comprehensive medical and dental care” for their dependents. However, for a husband to be considered a “dependent,” at least half of his material support had to come from his wife. This criterion did not apply to male servicemembers with wives.

Frontiero claimed that the statute “deprived servicewomen of due process” and violated the equality guarantee of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The district court ruled in favor of the Secretary of Defense; Frontiero appealed her case directly to the Supreme Court. Frontiero was a lieutenant in the US Air Force who was denied benefits for her husband Joseph, whom she claimed as a dependent.

“This absolute exclusion, based on gender per se, operates to the disadvantage of female workers, their surviving spouses, and their children,” Ginsburg stated during the case. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Frontiero’s favor. This case was fundamental in informing the military establishment that men and women must be considered equal in terms of pay, allowances, and general treatment.

4. Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975

In 1975, Ginsburg represented a man who sought survivor’s benefits to care for his child after his wife’s death in childbirth. The existing Social Security Law stated than only widows (not widowers) were entitled to this benefit.

In 1972, Wiesenfeld’s wife Paula Polatschek died in childbirth, which left Wiesenfeld with the care of their newborn son. Wiesenfeld applied for social security benefits for himself and his son and was told that his son could receive them but that he could not. Social Security Act provides benefits based on the earnings of a deceased husband and father that are available to both the children and the widow. The benefits for a deceased wife and mother, however, are only available to the children.

Men and women must be considered equal in terms of pay, allowances, and general treatment.

In 1973, Wiesenfeld sued on behalf of himself and similarly situated widowers. He claimed that the relevant section of the Social Security Act unfairly discriminated against on the basis of sex and sought summary judgment. A three-judge panel of the district court granted Wiesenfeld’s motion for summary judgment

Once again, the court decided in RBG’s favor and ruled that sex-based discrimination was unconstitutional.

5. Craig v. Boren, 1970

This case, which took place in 1970, had radical consequences.

Ginsburg filed a brief and sat with counsel to challenge an Oklahoma statute that stipulated different minimum drinking ages for men and women. In 1972, under Oklahoma law, a beer with an alcohol level of 3.2% could be purchased by women at age eighteen and men at age 21. The age differential could be traced back to the nineteenth century when Oklahoma, then a territory, established different ages of majority for men and women.

By the 1970s, however, the state’s explanation for treating men and women differently had changed. It was a matter of safety, the state argued; far more young men were arrested for drunk driving than women, and far more young men were injured or killed in car accidents related to drinking.

In the Supreme Court’s opinion, the fact that 2% of the men and just under 1% of the women between 18 and 21 had been arrested for alcohol-linked driving violations hardly constituted grounds for different treatment. Did the additional one percent justify the punishment of the remaining 98% who had never been arrested?

But of more lasting importance than the Court’s interpretation of the numbers was its interpretation of the criteria that it should use in evaluating laws of this sort.

Dumping the old easy-to-pass rational basis test, the Court argued that “classifications by gender must serve important governmental objectives and must be substantially related to the achievement of those objectives.” The court not only overruled this but also imposed, for the first time in history, intermediate scrutiny on laws pertaining to gender-based discrimination.

6. Durren v. Missouri, 1978

Ginsburg fought her last case as an attorney in 1978. Durren v Missouri challenged Missouri’s law which said that women could opt-out from jury service.

When RBG concluded her oral argument for this case, then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist asked her: “You won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?”

Ginsburg later reported that she considered responding, “We won’t settle for tokens,” but instead opted not to answer the question.

[Image Description: RBG and Obama hug] Via SkyNews.
[Image Description: RBG and Obama hug] Via SkyNews.

7. United States v. Virginia, 1996

One of her most famous cases during her time in the Supreme Court was this 1996 case.

VMI was a prestigious state-run military-inspired institution that did not admit women. However, the state of Virginia argued not only that women weren’t properly suited for VMI’s rigorous training, but also that the state’s creation of a separate military program at the women’s only liberal arts school, Mary Baldwin University, was sufficiently equal. The court disagreed and struck down VMI’s all-male admissions policy, with Ginsburg writing the majority opinion-making it clear that gender equality is a constitutional right.

“Neither the goal of producing citizen-soldiers nor VMI’s implementing methodology is inherently unsuitable to women,” she wrote, later adding, “generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.”

8. Olmstead v. LC, 1999

This landmark case focused on the rights of people with mental disabilities to live in their communities (known as the “integration mandate”), under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Supreme Court heard arguments on behalf of two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson.

Both were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit of a state-run Georgia hospital but were then held there in isolation in the years following their initial treatments — even after being medically cleared to move to a more community-based setting.

The Supreme Court overruled this decision in a 6-3 vote. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, in which she reinforced an important right afforded to individuals with disabilities, including mental illnesses. The “unjustified isolation” of Curtis and Wilson “perpetuates assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life,” she wrote.

9. Stenberg v. Carhart, 2000 & Gonzales v. Carhart, 2003

RBG consistently supported abortion rights.

Some of the landmark cases that she voted on where Stenberg v Carhart and Gonzales v. Carhart. The first of them made history for striking down Nebraska’s partial-birth law, which made performing ‘partial-birth abortion’ illegal without regard for the mother’s health.

RBG consistently supported abortion rights.

“A state regulation that ‘has the purpose or effect of placing a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus, violates the Constitution,” she wrote. Ginsburg later cited Stenberg v. Carhart in her dissent against the court’s opinion of Gonzalez v. Carhart.

In the second case, however, RBG dissented with the court’s decision. “Legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature,” she said.

In its ruling on Gonzalez v. Carhart, the Supreme Court upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. In her dissent, Ginsburg called the decision “alarming.” She decried the ruling, stating that the decision banned “a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.”

She further took Congress to task for passing the legislation in the first place, citing ample evidence that they did so based on dubious “expert” testimony. “[N]one of the six physicians who testified before Congress had ever performed an intact D&E. Several did not provide abortion services at all, and one was not even an obgyn. . . . [T]he oral testimony before Congress was not only unbalanced, but intentionally polemic,” she wrote.

10. Bush v. Gore, 2000

Some of Ginsburg’s most notable Supreme Court opinions were actually dissents or disagreements from the majority decision — like in the case of Bush v. Gore.

The case determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election. It ended at the Supreme Court after George W. Bush filed an emergency application to stop a Florida Supreme Court mandate for a manual recount of the ballots. The Court granted it, a decision that effectively handed Bush the victory in Florida, and in the election.

Ginsburg’s dissenting opinion made it clear that she disagreed with the court’s favoring of Bush. She famously wrote in her opinion, “I dissent.” The phrase was a somewhat harsh departure from the court’s decorum, in which dissenting justices usually note that they’re using the term “respectfully.”

[Image Description: The court clapping for RBG] Via SkyNews.
[Image Description: The court clapping for RBG] Via SkyNews.

11. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, 2007

In Ledbetter v. Goodyear, which took place in 2007, Lilly Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming pay discrimination based on gender. Lilly Ledbetter sued her employer of 19 years, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, for gender discrimination, after she discovered the company had been paying her less than her male counterparts.

Ledbetter argued the pay disparity was due to her gender and a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goodyear countered that the same clause required discrimination complaints to be filed within 180 days of the violation (aka the decision to pay her less money than the men) — so Ledbetter could only legally call into question the 180 days of unequal pay leading up to her official complaint, rather than the entirety of her nearly two-decade tenure with the company.

Although the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in favor of Goodyear, Ginsburg wrote the dissenting opinion.

“The Court’s insistence on immediate contest overlooks common characteristics of pay discrimination,” she wrote. “Pay disparities often occur, as they did in Ledbetter’s case, in small increments; cause to suspect that discrimination is at work develops over time. Comparative pay information, moreover, is often hidden from the employee’s view.”

In RBG’s dissent to the Bush v. Gore decision, she famously wrote in her opinion, “I dissent.” The phrase was a harsh departure from the norm.

And Ginsburg didn’t just quietly file her dissent with a clerk, as The New Yorker reports is often the case. Instead, she translated the official, rather technical document into a more widely understandable version, which she read publicly from the bench, making sure the gender wage gap got its due attention.

In that version, she noted that as Title VII stood at the time, “each and every pay decision Ledbetter did not properly challenge wiped the slate clean. Never mind the cumulative effect of a series of decisions that together set her pay well below that of every male area manager.” She pressed Congress to amend the clause, which they eventually did. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill he signed.

12. Safford Unified School District v. Redding, 2009

While still serving as the only female voice on the Court, RBG is credited in influencing the ultimate ruling in which the court had to weigh whether a male assistant principal had violated a 13-year-old girl’s rights when he forced her to remove her bra and underpants when searching for drugs.

While the court decided that the assistant principal had violated the girl’s rights, the court also ruled that the school district was entitled to qualified immunity.

“They have never been a 13-year-old girl,” Ginsburg later told USA Today. “It’s a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn’t think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood.”

13. Shelby County v. Holder, 2013

This is often referred to as the decision that “gutted” the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which enacted special requirements for certain parts of the country that had a particularly terrible track record of suppressing minority voters.

Section 4b of that landmark legislation, which was intended to bar racial discrimination in voting, enacted special requirements for certain parts of the country that had a particularly terrible track record of suppressing minority voters. Under Section 5 of the act, a policy known as “preclearance” required states like Alabama, Texas, and Arizona to receive approval from the attorney general or a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C. before making any changes to their voting requirements.

But in 2013, Alabama’s Shelby County challenged the constitutionality of the decades-old act. And in a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court agreed, claiming that the restrictions were outdated in the modern era and that it was an unconstitutional violation for Congress — rather than states themselves — to set the terms of elections.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes,” Ginsburg wrote, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

14. Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015

A number of same-sex couples sued their respective states over bans against same-sex marriages and not recognizing their legal marriages. Ginsburg’s vote helped overturn the marriage bans, legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states.

“Marriage was a relationship of a dominant male to a subordinate female,” she told them, according to a report by The Guardian. “That ended as a result of this court’s decision in 1982 when Louisiana’s Head and Master Rule was struck down … Would that be a choice that states should [still] be allowed to have? To cling to marriage the way it once was?” She also derided a procreation debate by asking whether a 70-year-old heterosexual couple would be allowed to marry when clearly they could not procreate either.

“We have changed our idea about marriage,” Ginsburg said during her oral argument. “Marriage today is not what it was under the common law tradition, under the civil law tradition.”

[Image description: Yearbook photo of Ginsburg, as well as her achievements and associations.] via TMZ
[Image description: Yearbook photo of Ginsburg, as well as her achievements and associations.] via TMZ

15. Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, 2016

This 2016 case tackled Texas’s Omnibus Abortion Bill (known widely as H.B. 2), which imposed strict restrictions and requirements on abortion providers, including a mandate that doctors performing procedures have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals and that clinics meet the same standards as outpatient surgical centers.

RBG joined the majority in this 2016 case that struck down a restrictive 2013 Texas law that regulated abortion providers. She also authored a short concurring opinion that criticized the legislation on abortion. She said that the law was not aimed at protecting mothers, as Texas claimed, but to keep them from having abortions.

Ginsburg’s vote helped overturn the marriage bans, legalizing same-sex marriage in all fifty states.

“It is beyond rational belief that H.B. 2 could genuinely protect the health of women, and certain that the law would simply make it more difficult for them to obtain abortions,” she wrote. “When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners…at great risk to their health and safety. So long as this Court adheres to Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers laws like H.B. 2 that do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion, cannot survive judicial inspection.”

16. Sherill v. Oneida2005

Although this list has shown Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s support for gender equity, not all her decisions made a positive impact. While we uphold her legacy, let’s also learn from her more debatable decisions, such as the majority opinion on the case Sherill v. Oneida. 

At issue in the case was whether land parcels granted to the Oneida Nation by a treaty in 1794, which had since been sold and only recently repurchased by the tribe, should be considered part of its reservation and therefore be exempt from local taxes.

In her opinion, Ginsburg held that the Oneida Nation could not reassert its sovereignty over the land, and had to pay taxes to the city. “Given the longstanding, distinctly non-Indian character of the area and its inhabitants, the regulatory authority constantly exercised by New York State and its counties and towns, and the Oneidas’ long delay in seeking judicial relief against parties other than the United States, we hold that the Tribe cannot unilaterally revive its ancient sovereignty, in whole or in part, over the parcels at issue,” Ginsburg wrote. “The Oneidas long ago relinquished the reins of government and cannot regain them through open-market purchases from current titleholders.”

Not all her decisions made a positive impact.

In this case, the US Court held that the repurchase of traditional tribal lands two hundred years later did not restore tribal sovereignty to that land.

Over the years, however, Ginsburg spent considerable time and work seeking to work against her previously-bigoted opinions about America’s Indigenous People, citing her 2016 case around domestic violence within indigenous communities as hopeful proof of her changing relationship with the community. 

17. Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018

This case was a big win for Ginsburg — she played a hand in striking down legislation that allows certain non-citizens to be expelled from the country.

According to Slate, the case was the first time in her entire court career that she assigned a majority opinion as the most senior justice in the majority.

According to the Court, the vagueness of the legislation struck down was in violation of the due process clause, making a strong precedent against legislative vagueness in future court cases.

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By Beatriz Valero de Urquía

Beatriz Valero de Urquia is the Senior Pop Culture and Books Editor at The Tempest. She graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2020 and has written for publications such as Teen Vogue, El Huffington Post, Digital Bulletin and Tech for Good. Beatriz spends her time between Spain and the UK reading, writing and listening to Taylor Swift.