Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Most Important Opinions

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 18, 2016 2:16 PM

A belated happy birthday to Ruth Bader Ginsburg! The Notorious RBG turned 83 on Tuesday.

To celebrate, we could talk about her new book, her jabots, or her history fighting with the Dean of Harvard Law, but we're going to focus on what really matters instead: her work. Here are Ruth Bader Ginsburg's five most important opinions from her almost 23 years on the Supreme Court.

1. Gender Equality: United States v. Virginia (1996)

Ginsburg got her start fighting discrimination against women. She wrote the first casebook on sex discrimination, established the first legal journal focused on women, and co-founded the ACLU's Women's Rights Project. She even wrote a brief that helped convince the Supreme Court that the Equal Protection Clause applied to discrimination against women.

So, it was shining moment for Justice Ginsburg when she, just three years after being appointed to the Court, authored the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia. That case found that the Virginia Military Institute's male-only admissions policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment and rejected VMI's claims that a separate (but surely equal) military school for women was good enough.

When Ginsburg's career began, concern over gender discrimination was hardly widespread. This case demonstrated how much things had changed, in part because of her work. The decision was seven to one, with only Justice Scalia dissenting.

2. Standing: Friends of the Earth v. Laidlaw Environmental Services (2000)

Standing may not be as exciting as sex discrimination, but it's arguably one of the most important concepts in the federal courts. If you lack standing, you're out of luck -- and that's something particularly common in environmental lawsuits, where the injury being claimed is often to the land, air, water, or wildlife, not the individual.

In Laidlaw, Justice Ginsburg helped make federal courts a bit more accessible, ruling that plaintiffs need not prove particular harm and could claim injury from harm to the "aesthetic and recreational values" of an area.

3. Expanding Insider Trading Restrictions: U.S. v. O'Hagan (1997)

Can overhearing inside information (and acting on it) count as insider trading? Yep, according to this opinion written by Justice Ginsburg. It held that James O'Hagan, a lawyer for a company considering taking over Pillsbury, was guilty of insider trading when he overheard talk of the takeover and began buying up thousands of shares of Pillsbury stock.

The case is a good example of Justice Ginsburg's pragmatic and clever legal thinking. Though O'Hagan wasn't he wasn't a traditional "insider," he was still prohibited from acting on the insider information under a misappropriation theory.

4 Mental Illness as Disability: Olmstead v. L.C. (1999)

In Olmstead, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, acknowledged mental illness as a disability for the first time. As such, it was covered under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But Justice Ginsburg's opinion went farther than just expanding the reach of the ADA. It held that "unjustified isolation" of the mentally disabled counts as discrimination under that Act, helping to increase the integration of the mentally handicapped back into general society.

5. Winning Even When You Lose: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007)

If the VMI case was a triumph for Justice Ginsburg, Ledbetter was a failure -- at least in the High Court. Here, the Court found that Lilly Ledbetter had waited too long to sue Goodyear for paying her less than her male counterparts. The very first time Ledbetter was paid less, she should have known about it and sued. Since her discriminatory pay lasted for years, she was too late.

Justice Ginsburg wrote a passionate dissent. Given the limited information employees have about coworkers' pay, Ledbetter's "initial readiness to give her employer the benefit of the doubt should not preclude her" from seeking justice later. And though Ginsburg was outvoted in the Court, she eventually won. The Supreme Court's decision was effectively reversed by the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act two years later.

Happy birthday, Justice Ginsburg! Here's to ten more years on the Court.

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