The Lasting Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Six Notable Decisions and Dissents
In her 27 years on the bench, Justice Ginsburg ruled on some of the most important U.S. Supreme Court cases in our nation’s history. Her decisions and dissents reflected her deep commitment to gender equity and civil rights. Here’s how she weighed in on landmark cases that involved AAUW’s priority policy issues.
United States v. Virginia (1996)
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the male-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute, ruling that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Ginsburg said a policy is incompatible with the Equal Protection Clause if it “denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities.” She wrote that “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.”
Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007)
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Lilly Ledbetter, a female tire-plant employee, waited too long to bring a Title VII pay discrimination claim against her employer, evaluating the case based upon the initial decision to pay Ledbetter less rather than considering each paycheck as its own discriminatory action. Justice Ginsburg wrote the dissent and read it from the bench, a rare practice. She said that the majority’s “cramped” interpretation neglected the insidiousness of pay discrimination. At her encouragement, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which made it easier for women to challenge unequal pay.
Gonzales v. Carhart, 2007
This 5-4 decision upheld the so-called Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, prohibiting a medical procedure and overturning 30 years of precedent requiring exceptions to such bans when a woman’s health is at risk. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg said, “The solution the Court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women, accurately and adequately, of the different procedures and their attendant risks. … Instead the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.”
Shelby County v. Holder (2013)
The U.S. Supreme Court rolled back a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that a section of the act – which created a “coverage formula” to identify states with a history of unlawful, racially discriminatory election laws and practices that needed more focused remedies – was unconstitutional, allowing states to change voting procedures without any ‘preclearance’ or oversight. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Obergefell v. Hodges (2015)
Justice Ginsburg joined the majority in this historic 5-4 decision establishing that same-sex couples have the right to marry under both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The ruling requires that states recognize the marriages of same-sex couples just as they do the marriages of opposite-sex couples, with all the accompanying rights and responsibilities.
Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores (2014)
In a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a provision of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover FDA-approved contraceptive methods for employees. The ruling exempted certain for-profit companies from the provision if business owners objected on religious grounds. In a passionate dissent, Ginsburg asked if the ruling would be extended “to employers with religiously grounded objections to blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses); antidepressants (Scientologists); medications derived from pigs, including anesthesia, intravenous fluids, and pills coated with gelatin (certain Muslims, Jews, and Hindus); and vaccinations (Christian Scientists, among others)?” She predicted such claims would come before the courts, which would then lead into the risky business of ruling on the merits of various religious beliefs.