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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Most Important Opinions

LONG BEACH, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference 2010 on October 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California. Attendees to the conference include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and candidates for California Governor Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 22, 2020 2:16 PM

This blog was originally created in 2016, in celebration of Justice Ginsberg's 83rd birthday. It has been updated after Justice Ginsberg's death on September 18, 2020.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg spent 40 years as a federal appellate judge and Supreme Court justice. Her time on the bench made her one of the most influential justices in the history of the U.S.

She became one of the rare Supreme Court Justices who are widely known and celebrated by the U.S. populace. She was an icon for many, particularly those who celebrate – and wish to emulate - her tireless fight for gender equality.

Summarizing 40 years on the bench isn't easy. Below are just a few notable decisions she penned.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Lasting Legacy

Of course, Justice Ginsberg was known for more than her legal opinions. She gave countless interviews, speeches, and advocated for gender equality outside of the courtroom as well as in it.

She will be missed.

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