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RBG: A life and legacy in the law remembered

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her official 2016 Supreme Court portrait.

On March 15, 1933, Celia Bader gave birth to Ruth Bader in Brooklyn, New York. This little Brooklyn girl, born only 13 years after women won the right to vote, would become a symbol of American Democracy, a bulwark against encroachments on civil rights.

For many law students, RBG became an icon—“Notorious RBG,” defender of human rights in a beaded collar. We bought bobble-heads, t-shirts, and books about the justice. But it was not her incontrovertible fashion sense, but her unwavering dedication to civil rights, that won hearts. What made RBG an icon were her words, strength, understanding of the law, and values.

But for many of us, we are acquainted with RBG through collars, opinions, and commentaries. However, she was so much more. But, let us now remind you who RBG was.

RBG was a pioneer. In 1956, she was one of only nine women to enroll in Harvard Law School.

She valued family. During law school, her husband, Marty, got cancer, and she became a fulltime caretaker for him, their child, and a double-duty law student (Marty was also a law student at the time).

RBG knew how to adapt. In 1958, she enrolled in Columbia Law School.

She knew how to persevere: despite graduating first in her class at Columbia Law School, RBG could not get a job.

She was a scholar. In 1963, she became only the second woman to be hired full-time at Rutgers Law School. In 1965, she published Civil Procedure in Sweden. RBG knew the law, both here and abroad.

She was an advocate. In 1971, she wrote her first appellate brief to the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed.

She was a servant of the people. In 1972, she cofounded the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

She was an author. In 1974, she published Sex-Based Discrimination, the first casebook on sex discrimination.

She was a loyal friend. RBG’s friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia symbolized a value above interpretative bents: kindness beyond the bench. There could not be a more unlikely pair of friends than RBG and Scalia, judging by only their opinions and often fiery disagreements. 

She was a powerful, brilliant Justice. In 1993, she was appointed a Supreme Court Justice. In 1999, she wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, forcing the Virginia Military Institute to admit women.

She was a voice of dissent when it mattered most. In Gonzales v. Carhart, she spoke in stern resolution that “The Court . . . pretends that its decisions protects women.”

For all that RBG was, we mourn and celebrate. For all that her legacy will be, we must think carefully.

Her legacy is in the law. Her spirit, like all justices who write opinions, is like a flicker in the dark. Somewhere in those words, we law students will get to fan those sparks into a fire against encroachments on civil liberties.

On September 18, 2020, Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed. She is gone. But her legacy remains. Let us remember to work hard, study hard, and be advocates for those things we know are right.

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Kayla Molina Kayla Molina is a student at The University of Oklahoma College of Law. She documents her law school experience on Twitter and has written for Above The Law. Molina has a Master’s in History. Before law school, she wrote National Register of Historic Places nominations.