On September 18, America’s light dimmed as we lost a great leader and champion in equal rights. After a long battle with cancer, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away at 87. She was happily married for 56 years and is survived by a daughter, a son, and four grandchildren.
The second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg fought for gender equality. She was such a powerful advocate because she experienced gender discrimination as a younger woman. She was one of only nine female law students at Harvard. After graduating, Ginsburg applied for a clerkship position for a Supreme Court justice, but she was denied because she was a woman. Then, while teaching law at Reuters University, Ginsberg discovered she was paid less than her male colleagues.
These experiences motivated Ginsberg to volunteer at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) where she later became the Director of the Women’s Rights Union. As an ACLU attorney, she argued over 300 gender discrimination cases and helped win five Supreme Court cases. Her strategy was to chip the discrimination wall a little at a time instead of bulldozing it, and to use “gender” instead of “sex” to avoid distractions. One of the major cases Ginsberg helped win was Reed vs. Reed where the State of Idaho prohibited a woman from administering her deceased son’s estate. Her victory was the foundation for the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that allows women to apply for financial services, such as bank accounts and credit cards without male co-signers.
As an ACLU lawyer, Ginsberg fought for men’s as well as women’s rights. In Weinberger vs. Wiesenfeld, Ginsberg argued that widowers should receive spousal Social Security and other death benefits as widows do. She also helped enforced men’s caregiver rights in Moritz vs. Commissioner where a man was denied a tax deduction for being a caregiver, due to his gender.
As Supreme Court Justice, one of the major gender equality cases Ginsburg helped win was the United States vs. Virginia, where Virginia Military Institute prohibited women from attending. Thanks to her deciding opinion, women can attend any educational facility they wish without fear of being denied.
Supreme Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left a legacy not only for the rights of women but also for those of persons with disabilities. Among the five cases she won as ACLU legal counsel was Cox vs. Eugenics Board of North Carolina where the state’s Sterilization of Persons Mental Defective program coerced a woman with cognitive disabilities to be sterilized because she would otherwise lose welfare benefits. (The name of the program itself should have been argued!). The ruling reinforced the rights of women with and without disabilities to have complete control over their own bodies.
As a Supreme Court Justice, Ginsburg wrote the deciding opinion in the 1999 landmark Supreme Court case of Olmstead vs. L.C. The case was based on two women, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, with developmental disabilities and mental illness who had been institutionalized at a Georgia state hospital for years even after doctors deemed them fit to live within the community.
In her opinion, Justice Ginsburg stated, “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life”, “Second, confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment.”
Thanks to Ginsburg’s opinion, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Curtis and Wilson. The ruling has allowed millions of persons with disabilities, including yours truly, to live independently without the fear of being placed in nursing homes and mental hospitals. It also has instigated change in providing services for us. For example, Medicaid provides various waivers for home care, meals, and medical equipment. Medicaid buy-in programs allow persons with disabilities who work to pay premiums to obtain personal care assistance.
Supreme Justice Ginsburg helped men and women with or without disabilities reap our civil rights to the fullest. Due to her legal victories and judiciary opinions, we can live freely without fear of repression. May her successor continue her legacy.
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