Over the course of a legal career that spanned more than six decades, the second-ever female Supreme Court Justice worked tirelessly to break down gender discrimination in American life and work, and to bring fairness to business. Here’s a look at some of her most influential cases.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew firsthand what it felt like to be discriminated against purely on the basis of her gender: As one of only nine female students at Harvard Law in 1956, she was famously asked why she was taking the place of a man. After she transferred to and graduated from Columbia, at the top of her class, she could barely get a job. And when she finally landed a teaching job at Rutgers School of Law in 1963, she hid her pregnancy under her mother-in-law’s baggy clothes until her contract was renewed.
These experiences would lay the groundwork for a career spent slowly dismantling gender discrimination in American life and work, and it is for this work that Ginsburg is most often celebrated. But her sense of justice, and quest for fairness, extends to many corners of work and business. Here are some of her most influential cases and decisions:
Ledbetter vs. Goodyear: In the landmark 2007 Supreme Court case, Lilly Ledbetter accused Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company of gender discrimination, alleging she was given a lower salary because she is a woman. Ledbetter lost, but not because of the merits of the case. The 5-4 majority ruled against Ledbetter because she didn’t file her claim within the required time period. In her dissent, which she read from the bench, Ginsburg assailed the majority opinion as a “a cramped interpretation of Title VII.” She argued that pay disparities often happen over time and may be “hidden in plain sight,” unlike other immediate forms of workplace discrimination. Ginsburg called on lawmakers for a legislative fix, and soon after Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. The law resets the 180-day time limit after each discriminatory paycheck, rather than after the initial decision to pay a worker less.
LaFleur vs. Cleveland Board of Education: This 1974 pregnancy discrimination suit on behalf of Jo Carol LaFleur and two other teachers alleged they had been forced to go on unpaid leave after the fifth month of their pregnancies. Then the head of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project (which she founded), Ginsburg signed an amicus brief in support of teachers, who ultimately prevailed at the Supreme Court. Ginsburg’s support for LaFleur came two years after she argued on behalf of a female Air Force pilot in a similar case and in which she concluded, “if involuntary discharge of a woman solely on the ground of her pregnancy is not sex discrimination, nothing is!” With recent high-profile pregnancy discrimination lawsuits at Google and Walmart, this case and Ginsburg’s words still serve as important precedent for pregnant employees and their right to work.
Daimler Ag vs. Bauman: In a 9-0 decision authored by Ginsburg in 2004, the Supreme Court narrowed the circumstances where plaintiffs can sue out-of-state and foreign companies. Workers at a Mercedes Benz plant in Argentina sued German-based DaimlerChrysler AG in California, alleging it worked with state security forces during the Argentina’s “Dirty War” from 1976-1983 to detain and torture plant workers suspected of being union agitators. Ginsburg wrote that Daimler couldn’t be sued in the United States—even though it operates a Mercedes Benz subsidiary there—because it is incorporated in Germany.
Campbell-Ewald Company vs. Gomez: Ginsburg’s decision in this case essentially sided with consumers in class action lawsuits. Corporate interests (Campbell-Ewald here) wanted to be able to say, “this consumer has a complaint against us, but we offered them money so their complaint is not valid.” Writing for the majority opinion, Ginsburg essentially ruled that sorry, simply offering money does not invalidate that complaint. Consumer advocates took this ruling as a victory for those who want to sue big business.
Gender Discrimination Cases Outside of the Workplace:
Reed vs. Reed: This 1971 case, the first brief she would write for the Supreme Court, found Ginsburg arguing on behalf of a woman who had been denied by law from serving as the executor to her dead son’s estate (the honor, instead, had gone to her ex-husband). “Laws which disable women from full participation in the political, business and economic arenas are often characterized as ‘protective’ and beneficial,” Ginsburg wrote. “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.” Ginsburg prevailed, and the case marked the first time the court would strike down a law on the basis of gender discrimination.
United States vs. Virginia: Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and the author of book Conversations with RBG, argues this 1996 case is her most important case, because it struck down all-male military academies. The Virginia Military Academy had then argued that creating a separate academy for women fulfilled the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, but Ginsburg writes, in the 7-1 majority opinion, that a male-only admissions policy is unconstitutional. In this decision, Ginsburg manages to reference her own successful history as a litigator, noting, “Since Reed, the Court has repeatedly recognized that neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with the equal protection principle when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women… equal opportunity.”
Moritz vs. Commissioner: Ginsburg argued in 1972 as an attorney that a tax law discriminated against men, laying the groundwork for future arguments against sex-based discrimination. This was the only case that Ginsburg and her husband, Martin, argued together. Ginsburg represented Charlies Moritz, an unmarried man who wasn’t eligible for a $600 tax deduction only available to “women, widowers, or a husband with dependents and whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.” The case is featured in the 2018 Ginsburg biopic “On The Basic Of Sex.”
Weinberger vs. Wisenfeld: In this 1975 case, Ginsburg represented a man whose wife had died in childbirth, but had been denied Social Security benefits because the law at the time only permitted widows to collect—not widowers. The Supreme Court ruled in Ginsburg’s favor.
Duren vs. Missouri: This 1979 case would be the last she argued as an attorney before the Supreme Court (she was appointed as a federal judge in 1980), but it was the third of three arguments she made on behalf of women who wanted to serve in a jury but were prevented by state law from doing so. Ginsburg argued that barring women from juries prevented defendants from receiving fair trials, and that it treated women’s jury service as less valuable than men’s. She won the case.