Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg moved slowly.
When court was in session, she often had her head down, sometimes leading visitors to think she was asleep. She once acknowledged that she did occasionally nod off, including during a State of the Union address.
It was a mistake to equate her gait and gaze with frailty, for Ginsburg showed over and over a steely resilience in the face of personal loss and serious health problems that made the diminutive New Yorker a towering women’s rights champion and forceful presence at the court over 27 years.
She made few concessions to age and recurrent health problems, working regularly with a personal trainer.
She never missed any time in court before the age of 85, and then only following surgery in December 2018 for lung cancer.
Ginsburg died on Friday of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer at her home in Washington at 87, the court said.
Late in her court tenure, she became a social media icon, the Notorious RBG, a name coined by a law student who admired Ginsburg’s dissent in a case cutting back on a key civil rights law.
The justice was at first taken aback.
There was nothing “notorious” about this woman of rectitude who wore a variety of lace collars on the bench and often appeared in public in elegant gloves.
When her law clerks and grandchildren explained the connection to another Brooklynite, the rapper The Notorious B.I.G., her skepticism turned to delight.
“In the word the current generation uses, it’s awesome,” Ginsburg said in 2016, shortly before she turned 83.
In 2018, Ginsburg was the subject of a documentary and a feature film On the Basis of Sex, in which the actor Felicity Jones portrayed her.
In her final years on the court, Ginsburg was the unquestioned leader of the liberal justices, as outspoken in dissent as she was cautious in earlier years.
Criticizing the court’s conservative majority for getting rid of a key part of the landmark Voting Rights Act in 2013, Ginsburg wrote that it was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Her stature on the court and the death of her husband in 2010 probably contributed to Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench beyond the goal she initially set for herself, to match Justice Louis Brandeis’ 22 years on the court and his retirement at the age of 82.
Ginsburg had special affection for Brandeis, the first Jew named to the high court. She was the court’s second woman and its sixth Jewish justice.
In time she was joined by two other Jews, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and two other women, Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
She said that religion had become irrelevant in the selection of high-court justices and that gender was heading in the same direction, although when asked how many women would be enough for the high court, Ginsburg replied without hesitation, “Nine.”
She could take some credit for equality of the sexes in the law. In the 1970s, she argued six key cases before the court when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement. She won five.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books,” then-US president Bill Clinton said in 1993 when he announced her appointment. “She has already done that.”
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