Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States and a bastion of gender equality, died on Friday.
Stanford students and faculty who interacted with the justice and her work described her as generous and caring, commended her fierce passion for gender justice and expressed concern about the implications of a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
“She was a raw, generous, smart person who was wonderful to be with and laugh with,” said law professor emeritus William Gould. “I got to know her in 1971 and 1972 when we were both visiting Harvard. We were in each other’s company a lot because we were both outsiders in the field. We were on our own.”
One of the many ways Ginsburg distinguished herself was through her landmark opinions, said Gould, citing her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., which galvanized Congress to pass a pay equity act widely regarded as a victory for gender parity.
Gould also praised Ginsburg’s warmth towards his grandson, whom Gould took to visit Ginsburg back in 2010.
“She was so generous, and had a great discussion with my grandson,” Gould said. “She was special in that way.”
Law professor Jane S. Schacter added that Ginsburg played a “historic role” in shaping constitutional sex discrimination jurisprudence — a role Schacter said is both singular and secure as a part of Ginsburg’s legacy.
She praised Ginsburg for her majority opinion in United States v. Virginia in 1996, a landmark case in which the Supreme Court struck down the long-standing male-only admissions policy of the Virginia Military Institute.
“She was the architect of the Supreme Court’s modern case law on gender and equality, and had the unique role of shaping that law as both an advocate before she joined the Court, and as a justice,” Schacter said.
Law professor Michael McConnell, who knew Justice Ginsburg personally, said the times where their paths crossed at conferences were illuminating and aided him in his work.
McConnell said that one of his nicest early memories with Ginsburg took place in 1991, when they were both speaking at an academic conference on free speech.
“Afterwards she called me and said how much she had enjoyed it and encouraged me to formalize it in writing and publish it,” McConnell said. “I did just that.”
“I think I’ll remember her for those personal exchanges we had,” McConnell added. “Obviously, I will remember her as a historical figure and as one of the most influential justices of recent times, but I think I’ll most remember her for those special encounters we had.”
Stanford students also mourned Ginsburg’s death, calling her an inspiration for her championing of women’s rights.
“Justice Ginsburg has been a champion for women’s rights for so long and has helped so many women to be able to maintain their bodily autonomy in a country where so many politicians try to strip women of that right,” Hiran Dewar ’23 said. “I am so sad that we won’t have her as an incredibly selfless powerhouse in the Supreme Court. Her own experiences and identities were so important to have in that position of power.”
Jane Belcaster ’24 echoed Dewar, describing Ginsburg as one of the “strongest influences” in her life.
“She was a constant reminder of what a 5’1” woman — like myself — can accomplish,” Belcaster said.
Belcaster recalled interviewing Ginsburg for her school newspaper two years ago after writing her a “shot-in-the-dark letter” asking to meet.
“I pitched it as a 5-minute interview, but she spent an entire hour with me in her chambers,” Belcaster said. “I remember walking to The Supreme Court in the rain, as I tried to hold my umbrella steady — I couldn’t stop shaking from the nerves. Those 60 minutes in her chambers were some of the most precious minutes of my life.”
During the interview, Belcaster said, Ginsburg put legal arguments into words understandable to her, a 17-year-old at the time.
“I could’ve sat there and listened to her speak for hours,” Belcaster said.
“One of the last things she told me in our interview was to join with others to make our society better,” Belcaster added. “She said to join an environmental group, a civil rights group, or a group concerned with the abolition of the death of penalty. Most of all, she stressed the importance of voting. She said she would encourage young people to do anything to join efforts to get people to register to vote and go to the polls on election day. I can’t think of anything more relevant.”
Throughout her life, Ginsburg, who was a Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences fellow in the late 1970s, visited Stanford on multiple occasions. In September 2013, Ginsburg spent Constitution Day at the University, where she gave a lecture titled “Some Highlights of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012-2013 Term.”
In 2017, Ginsburg delivered a lecture at Memorial Church about leading a meaningful life. In her lecture, she discussed critical legal cases regarding gender equality and shared advice on entering the legal field with attendees. To Ginsburg, the mark of a meaningful life was “living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”
Students and professors also expressed fear and uncertainty about the future of the Supreme Court following Ginsburg’s death.
With a vacancy on the court, President Donald Trump and other Republican senators say that they will quickly nominate another person to the post, filling the spot before the November election.
Democrats in Congress have publicly come out against this fast-tracked timeline, citing Senate Republicans’ refusal to hold a hearing for Obama nominee Merrick Garland after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in the election year of 2016. If the Republicans are able to nominate and confirm a justice, conservatives will have a 6-3 majority on the Court.
“Any time of her passing is tremendously sad for the nation, but it came at a particularly bad time,” McConnell said. “In light of the upcoming elections, her death came upon an occasion of partisan vitriol and extreme polarization. She would not have liked that.”
Dewar added that she fears Ginsburg’s passing and the potential appointment of a new conservative justice will jeopardize women’s rights.
“I’m also just really scared,” Dewar said. “I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of me, my friends, my younger sisters and so many young women growing up and experiencing life and sexuality without adequate reproductive rights.”
Contact Sarina Deb at sdeb7 ‘at stanford.edu and Kathryn Zheng at kszheng ‘at’ stanford.edu.