Ruth Bader Ginsburg, liberal lioness of the Supreme Court, dies

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President Barack Obama greets Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before he addresses a joint session of Congress on Feb. 24, 2009, in the House of Representatives Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
GEORGE BRIDGES/TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

BY DAVID G. SAVAGE
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

WASHINGTON — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who championed women’s rights — first as a trailblazing civil rights attorney who methodically chipped away at discriminatory practices, then as the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and finally as an unlikely pop culture icon — has died at her home in the nation’s capital.

Ginsburg, who had battled cancer for more than a decade, died Friday evening due to complications of the cancer, the U.S. Supreme Court announced. She was 87.

A feminist hero lovingly dubbed Notorious RBG, Ginsburg emerged over the last decade as the leading voice of the court’s liberal wing, best known for her stinging dissents on a bench that has mostly skewed right since her 1993 appointment.

For her first two decades, Ginsburg was a respected but not highly influential member of the high court — a reliable liberal vote who was often overshadowed by Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female justice and the court’s swing vote.

But after O’Connor and John Paul Stevens retired, Ginsburg became a major force on the court, her soft voice and diminutive stature belying a biting tongue and inexhaustible energy that pushed her to work through numerous health scares, including colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, lung cancer and a 2018 fall that left her with broken ribs.

She wrote several major decisions, including a 1996 ruling in U.S. v. Virginia that opened the doors of Virginia Military Institute to women and struck down discriminatory admissions policies of state-run schools. She supported abortion rights, gay rights, affirmative action and the strict separation of church and state.

But Ginsburg was best known for her impassioned dissents, which she often delivered in court while wearing a special dark, beaded “dissent collar” over her traditional black robe.

She called it “hubris” in 2013 when the court’s five conservatives struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act as outdated. Tossing out the protection, she said, “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

A year later, she slammed the same five for ruling that Hobby Lobby Corp. had a religious freedom right not to pay for legally required contraceptives for their employees. Corporations do not have religious views, she said, and Congress “left healthcare decision — including the choice among contraceptive methods — in the hands of women.”

During oral arguments over a 2013 gay marriage case, Ginsburg said the government’s Defense of Marriage Act effectively had set up an unfair, two-tier system. “There are two kinds of marriage: full marriage and the skim-milk marriage,” she said. In that case, she was part of the majority that overturned the federal law.

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