September 18, 2020 at 7:51 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, champion of LGBTQ rights on the bench, dies at age 87
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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died at age 87. (photo courtesy Library of Congress)

U.S. Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined major decisions for LGBTQ rights on the bench and was known as the “Notorious RBG” in progressive circles, has died at age 87, the Washington Blade has confirmed.

“Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died this evening surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, D.C., due to complications of metastatic pancreas cancer,” a Supreme Court spokesperson said in a statement Friday evening.

Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, said in a statement upon Ginsburg’s passing she was “a giant of justice, a champion for equality and progress.”

“Justice Ginsburg was an American hero and pioneer, a voice for so many marginalized people, leaving behind a legacy of courage, tenacity and historic impact in creating a better country and a better world for all of us,” Carey said. “We are all so grateful for all Justice Ginsburg has done for LGBTQ people, for women, for our ability to control our own bodies, for all that seek to move freedom forward in this country.” 

Ginsburg’s death will light a bonfire in an already tumultuous political season, as emotions are heated and civil unrest — even violence — has gripped the country ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The fate of Ginsburg’s seat, who was a strong proponent of abortion rights, will be seen as key to deciding whether or not abortion will remain legal in the United States.

With a seat vacant on the Supreme Court, the responsibility falls to the president of the United States to appoint a replacement who will be subject to Senate confirmation. For the time being that is Trump, who would have a Republican-controlled Senate to evaluate his pick before the election.

Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), flip-flopping from rules he set in 2016 when he refused to allow a vote on the confirmation of Merrick Garland, said in a statement late Friday the situation is different from 2020 and Trump’s pick will get a vote..

“Americans reelected our majority in 2016 and expanded it in 2018 because we pledged to work with President Trump and support his agenda, particularly his outstanding appointments to the federal judiciary,” McConnell said. “Once again, we will keep our promise. President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

When conservative justice Antonin Scalia died in 2016, McConnell struck a different tune, saying he’d let the people speak their voice in the presidential election rather allow consideration of President Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland.

“This vacancy should not be filled,” McConnell said at the time. “The American people should have their say on this issue, so let’s give them a voice. Let’s let the American people decide.”

Trump has recently updated his list of potential Supreme Court picks, which include anti-LGBTQ choices such as U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan and James Ho of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, as well as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).

‘A force for good’

Appointed by former President Bill Clinton and confirmed in 1993, Ginsburg joined the majority for every decision for LGBTQ right from the Supreme Court.

Alphonso David, president of Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement Ginsburg was “a force for good — a force for bringing this country closer to delivering on its promise of equality for all.”

“Her decades of work helped create many of the foundational arguments for gender equality in the United States, and her decisions from the bench demonstrated her commitment to full LGBTQ equality,” David said. “She was and will remain an inspiration to young people everywhere, a pop culture icon as the Notorious RBG and a giant in the fight for a more just nation for all. We extend our deepest condolences to her family and loved ones.”

Among the rulings she joined was Romer v. Evans in 1996, which struck down Colorado’s anti-gay Amendment 2, Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which struck down state laws criminalizing sodomy. Both decisions were early indications the nation was beginning to head into a different direction to accept gay people.

Ginsburg also joined rulings that advanced same-sex marriage, including Windsor v. United States in 2013, which struck down the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act; Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013, which restored marriage equality to California after Proposition 8; and Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down state bans on same-sex marriage and extended full marriage equality throughout the country.

For each of these rulings on marriage, justices were split 5-4, so if Ginsburg weren’t on the court, the decisions may not have come out in favor of the LGBTQ community.

More recently, Ginsburg joined the decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which found anti-LGBTQ discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus illegal under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The broad ruling grants protections to LGBTQ people wherever there are laws against sex discrimination, including employment, housing, health care and education.

Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said although former U.S. Associate Anthony Kennedy and U.S. Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch were the authors of major LGBTQ rights from the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was “the most important voice for LGBT people.”

“As a civil rights advocate, she litigated and won the groundbreaking cases that established strong constitutional protections for women,” Minter said. “As a Supreme Court justice, she authored key sex discrimination decisions that paved the way for the Court’s embrace of equality for same-sex couples in Obergefell and for LGBT workers in Bostock. She was our champion and the architect of an expansive vision of gender equality that was broad and capacious enough to include LGBT people. Without her influence and legacy, none of those landmark decisions would have been possible.”   

Ginsburg herself became the first Supreme Court justice to conduct a same-sex wedding, marrying Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser and economist John Roberts in 2013.

Kevin Jennings, CEO of Lambda Legal, said in a statement Ginsburg was an “irreplaceable giant” on the Supreme Court.

“Throughout her entire legal career, including her 27 years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg fought for the rights of those on the margins,” Jennings said. “From her time as a lawyer with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project to her years on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg spoke with a clear and strong voice against inequality and gender discrimination. A long-standing ally of the LGBTQ community, her unwavering support, both on and off the bench, was a testament to her commitment to equality for all people.”

Hundreds gathered at the steps of the United States Supreme Court on Friday evening to mourn the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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