There was a framed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 on the wall of the chambers of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday. She counted the law among her proudest achievements, even as it illustrated her limited power. As part of the Supreme Court’s four-member liberal wing, she did her most memorable work in dissent.
The law was a reaction to her minority opinion in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, the 2007 ruling that said Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 imposed strict time limits for bringing workplace discrimination suits. She called on Congress to overturn the decision, and it did.
On the court, however, her notable victories were few. As she put it in a 2013 interview in her chambers, she was fully engaged in her work as the leader of the liberal opposition on what she called “one of the most activist courts in history.”
When President Bill Clinton put Justice Ginsburg on the Supreme Court in 1993, some liberals feared she would turn out be a moderate. She had, for instance, voiced doubts about the court’s reasoning in Roe v. Wade, saying it had moved too fast in establishing a nationwide right to abortion.
The fears were misplaced. Over her 27 years on the court, she emerged as a champion of progressive causes.
“Ginsburg’s liberalism extended to all areas of the law: civil rights, of course, but also criminal procedure, civil liberties and even economic disputes,” Lee Epstein, a law professor and political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, said.
During her tenure, on courts led by Chief Justices William H. Rehnquist and John G. Roberts Jr., the court’s more conservative members were in the majority. She and her liberal colleagues needed a fifth vote to achieve a majority, and that vote typically belonged to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who for years served as the court’s ideological fulcrum.
In that coalition, Justice Ginsburg was on the winning side in cases on abortion, affirmative action, gay rights and the death penalty. But her most striking work was when she failed to persuade the majority of her views.
In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, which effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she wrote that the majority had been shortsighted in saying the law was no longer needed. “It is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm,” she wrote, “because you are not getting wet.”