At 82 years old and five-foot-one, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg listened carefully from behind the bench as lawyers made their arguments in a historic case. The courtroom was discussing hypotheticals, and the justice had a point to make.
The year was 2015, and the Supreme Court was reviewing a challenge to state laws banning same-sex marriage. One reason for such bans, lawyers had argued, was the state’s interest in procreation, in reserving legal marriage for those who can make babies together. The Court was discussing what this could mean for opposite-sex couples who didn’t want children. Were the states planning on asking every couple about their plans to reproduce?
“Suppose a couple, a 70-year-old couple comes in and they want to get married. You don’t have to ask them any questions. You know they are not going to have any children,” Ginsburg proposed, prodding the states’ double standard. The courtroom laughed.
Throughout her career, Ginsburg’s sharp lines of reasoning advanced rights for the LGBTQ community, women, African Americans, immigrants, and inmates on death row. Her death last month from metastatic pancreatic cancer marked the loss of a prominent defender for those traditionally overlooked by the law.
The Republican-led Senate is expected to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative judge from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, to fill Ginsburg’s seat on October 26. Many are worried that Barrett will shift the Court further away from Ginsburg’s vision and overturn many of the rulings that defined her career. For women like Kelley Henry, an attorney who has represented death-row prisoners for more than 20 years, their work to uphold Ginsburg’s legacy feels more urgent than ever.
“[Ginsburg] spoke truth to power her entire career and made it possible for people like me to have the opportunity to do what I do,” Henry says. “I think the Constitution is the greatest document ever written, not because of the words on the paper, but because of the ideals that are behind it. I feel like every day that I go to work, I’m upholding those ideals.” (Here’s why filling a Supreme Court vacancy in an election year is so complicated.)
Equal protection for ‘any person’
When Ginsburg entered law school in 1956, the U.S. had thousands of laws on the books that treated women differently than men. Women could be fired for becoming pregnant, could not secure a mortgage without a man to co-sign, or be denied admission to a state-funded school based on their gender. Very few women practiced law. Ginsburg was one of only nine women in her class at Harvard Law School, and even though she later graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law, where she’d transferred to join her husband