Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a legal pioneer. These are some of her most important Supreme Court opinions

Highlights from the career of a legal pioneer 

Richard Hall
Saturday 19 September 2020 04:48 BST
Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Supreme Court judge dies aged 87

Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent 27 years on the Supreme Court bench. In her life and in her work, she was a pioneer for equal rights for women and civil liberties.  

Throughout that long career, Ginsburg blazed a trail for women in a profession that has long been dominated by men. She was deeply involved in rulings on voting rights and immigration.

She also wrote crucial dissents on some of the key legal fights of the last few decades.

"Some of my favorite opinions are dissenting opinions," Ginsburg once told NPR. "I will not live to see what becomes of them, but I remain hopeful."

Here are some of her most important opinions:

United States v. Virginia, 1996  

Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in this landmark ruling, which struck down Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy. The court ruled 7-1 that the institute violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

In her opinion, Ginsburg wrote: “Virginia maintains that methodological differences are justified by the important differences between men and women in learning and developmental needs, but generalizations about ‘the way women are’, estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description,” she wrote.  

“Women seeking and fit for a VMI quality education cannot be offered anything less, under the State’s obligation to afford them genuinely equal protection,” she wrote.

Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, described the opinion years later to CNN as “perhaps the best-known and most important majority opinion Justice Ginsburg has penned in her 24 years on the Supreme Court."

"That case, more than any other, epitomized the justices' effort to establish true sex equality as a fundamental constitutional norm, and its effects are continuing to reverberate today."

Olmstead v. L.C, 1999

In this, another landmark case, Ginsburg again wrote the majority opinion which ruled that Georgia had violated the rights of two women with mental disabilities by holding them in isolation at a hospital.

Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson were voluntarily admitted to the psychiatric unit of a hospital but held for years despite being cleared for release into a community setting.

In the 6-3 ruling, the court decided that Georgia had violated the Americans for Disabilities Act.

She wrote that the continued isolation of the women “perpetuates assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life".

She added that states “are required to place persons with mental disabilities in community settings rather than in institutions when the State’s treatment professionals have determined that community placement is appropriate, the transfer from institutional care to a less restrictive setting is not opposed by the affected individual, and the placement can be reasonably accommodated, taking into account the resources available to the State and the needs of others with mental disabilities.”

Sessions v. Dimaya, 2018

Though she did not write the opinion in this case, it was nonetheless a key moment in Ginsburg’s career.

After 25 years on the court, it was the first time she assigned a majority opinion — a right given to the most senior justice on the majority.

The case struck down a provision of a statue that virtually guaranteed the expulsion of noncitizens convicted of an “aggravated felony” because it was unconstitutionally vague.

It was just the sixth time that a female justice has been able to assign a majority opinion, and Ginsburg assigned it to Justice Elena Kagan.

Justice Kagan wrote in her opinion for the court that deportation is "a virtual certainty" for people convicted of aggravated felonies, and that the language was too vague. .

“Does car burglary qualify as a violent felony? Some courts say yes, another says no.”

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