5 Ways Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Championed for Human Rights

Lead Photo: Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
Art by Alan Lopez for Remezcla
Read more

A champion of human rights even before her 1993 confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves behind a matchless legacy. Never in the history of the United States has their been a Justice so staunchly feminist, openly pro-people and, well, famous—because of her sharp and steadfast dissents as well as opinions publicly stated to the press.

The Notorious RBG, as some called her, died Friday at 86 years old, having served 27 years on the court. She was the second woman ever to earn a seat.

RBG was not always progressive, and as such her record is not flawless, and she is not untouchable in terms of her work for equality and general human rights. Nobody’s perfect, even the most well-intentioned of people. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, however, certainly came damn near close.

She voted to protect DACA

Trump’s attack on Dreamers–recipients DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals act–began soon after he took office. The Obama-era measure allows undocumented immigrants who arrived to the U.S. as children to acquire work permits, and defers any possible deportation; under Trump, however, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security aimed to rescind it.

It was close at 5-4, and employed a strategy of denouncing Trump’s route to ending the policy rather than the policy itself—but RBG supported the opinion that generally upheld DACA in June 2020.

While this win was a massive relief for Dreamers, Trump has still managed to negatively affect the breadth of the policy, cutting its renewal period from two years to one. The long-term future for DACA recipients, of which there are currently about 650,000, is still uncertain.

She relentlessly tried to protect voting rights

Two cases critical to ensuring voting rights for all U.S. citizens are Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Veasey v. Perry (2014), and Ginsburg had a hand in favorable decisions in both.

The former relates to dismantling the Voting Rights Act of 1965: Chief Justice Roberts basically said that racism was over, the information it was based on is too old to be reliable, and so the law was obsolete.

We know, of course, that racism is far from eradicated—and Ginsburg knew this, too.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Despite her challenge, however, the protective measure was eliminated. New Voter ID laws and the closure of specific polling places, plus other measures that affect marginalized communities disproportionately, have spiked as a result.

Veasey v. Perry (2014) related to voter ID law in Texas—Vox calls it one of the strictest in the country. Ultimately, the law was upheld, but it was sharply denounced in dissent written by Ginsburg during an all-nighter, with Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor supporting.

A federal court had previously decided that Republican lawmakers in Texas deliberately targeted the voting rights of Black and Brown people with the law, but an appeals court later upheld it, claiming that changing policies so close to election day could “foster voter confusion.” The Supreme Court, unfortunately, agreed.

Released at 5 a.m. on a Saturday, Ginsburg’s dissent made clear that Texas knew what it was doing all along. “Any voter confusion or lack of public confidence in the electoral processes is in this case largely attributable to the State itself,” she noted. She also included a jab at the state, writing that “racial discrimination in elections in Texas is no mere historical artifact.”

Ginsburg fought for LGBTQ rights

As of June 15, 2020, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. Ginsburg was one of the justices who supported the majority opinion.

Gerald Bostock was fired from his job in Clayton County, Georgia, after joining a gay recreational softball league and mentioning to his employers, Altitude Express, that he was gay. Aimee Stephens was fired after letting her employer, a funeral home, know that she is trans and, unlike when first hired, would now present as a woman full-time. Each of them sued, “alleging sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

Bostock v. Clayton County made its way through appeals courts then reached the Supreme Court where it was ruled that “federal law prohibits employers from terminating employees because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Ginsburg was generally was pro-immigrant

A perpetually contentious issue in U.S. courts, Ginsburg generally held a pro-immigrant stance in her Supreme Court opinions and dissents. Back in 1996, Ginsburg joined other justices in shutting down the automatic deportation of undocumented people who’ve been accused of crimes.

Regarding INS (now ICE) detainment, Ginsburg dissented from the court’s 2003 decision allowing indefinite holding of undocumented people awaiting hearings. Arizona’s law on federal immigration policy of 2007 conflicted a federal 1986 law that “forbids state governments from sanctioning employers” who hire undocumented workers. Though the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s Legal Arizona Workers Act, Ginsburg joined the dissent of Justice Breyer; Sotomayor also dissented.

She battled for equity in the workplace

As noted by Vox, some of Ginsburg’s dissents led to legislative action: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber (2007) is one such case. A low salary and poor performance reviews she presumably felt were biased fueled Lilly Ledbetter to sue Goodyear for gender discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the company appealed her monetary award after winning the case, it was argued that complaints must be “made within 180 days of the employer’s discriminatory conduct,” and so only one salary review should have been considered by the jury. The Supreme Court upheld this slim window in its ruling.

Naturally, Ginsburg donned her dissent collar: “This is not the first time the Court has ordered a cramped interpretation” of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, she wrote. Imploring the Legislature right this wrong, it ultimately did: the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed in 2009, and marked the first bill signed into law by President Barack Obama.