"Jurist with Attitude" Celebrates 19 Years on Supreme Court
If you are under the age of 20, there’s never been a time in your life when a Jewish woman hasn’t been sitting on the Supreme Court of the United States. Until the fall of 2010, when Associate Justice Elena Kagan took her seat on the bench, that place was filled by one small but powerful presence: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
From the moment she was sworn in by President Clinton—August 10th marks 19 years since that historic occasion—Justice Ginsburg began making history. She was only the second woman, and the first Jewish woman, to scale America’s legal Mt. Olympus.
The Brooklyn native was actually the first in her immigrant family to attend college. At Cornell where she earned her B.A. in Government, the young Ruth Bader exhibited the quick grasp of complex legal issues she would be known for as a jurist. Her daughter was 14 months old when Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered law school, first at Harvard (where she was one of nine women in a class of 500) and then at Columbia, after the family moved to New York to accommodate her husband’s career.
In spite of being consistently ranked at the top of her class at two prestigious law schools and in spite of being accepted to the Law Review, upon her graduation in 1957, Ruth Ginsburg was turned down by no fewer than 14 law firms. She finally secured a clerkship with a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
Turning to academia, she taught first at Rutgers University and then at Columbia, where she was the first tenured woman on the law faculty. When the ACLU established a Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg became its co-director. It was her longtime battle for equal rights for women that led her to argue her first case before the Supreme Court. She represented an Army officer who was given no housing and her spouse no health benefits because the officer was a woman. She won the case. The year was 1973.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where she served until President Clinton tapped her for the highest court in the land. Known as a political centrist, she earned swift approval from both sides of the Congressional aisle.
She is proud of her Jewish experience, identity, and values and believes they are central to the person she has become.
During her confirmation hearings, she explained, “I grew up during World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing a place in [Pennsylvania], a resort with a sign out in front that read: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ Signs of that kind existed in this country during my childhood. One couldn’t help but be sensitive to discrimination living as a Jew in America at the time of World War II.”
She later told an American Jewish Committee audience: “I hope, in my years on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States, I will have the strength and the courage to remain constant in the service” of the Jewish demand for justice.