Day 6

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion of women's rights

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday at 87, according to the court. She leaves behind a legacy of fighting for women’s rights and equality. But her death also adds turmoil to an-already fraught presidential election year.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice died at 87 on Friday

Mourners placed flowers, messages, and mementos at a makeshift memorial in honour of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Justice Ginsburg has died at age 87 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died in her home Friday at 87, leaving behind a legacy of fighting for women's rights and equality.  She died due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. 

Known for being a strong champion of women's rights, Ginsburg was just the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, after Sandra Day O'Connor. President Bill Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1993, and she held that role until her death.

"We have all been holding our breath this summer after she announced that she was undergoing chemotherapy yet again," said filmmaker Betsy West, who directed the 2018 documentary, RBG. "And so in many ways, it wasn't a surprise. But I am pretty devastated by the loss."

She referred to Ginsburg as one of the most important and influential people of the last two centuries.

"She was remarkably energetic," said West. "She pushed through pain, she pushed through adversity, and she was really one of the most productive justices."

West's documentary, which focused on Ginsburg's life and career, was nominated for two Academy Awards, for Best Documentary Feature and Best Original Song. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks onstage in New York City in December last year. (Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Berggruen Institute)

The Lilly Ledbetter case

During her life, Ginsburg made a name for herself as a staunch supporter of women's rights. In a time when, according to West, women could be fired for being pregnant and required permission from a husband to get a credit card, Ginsburg argued for equality before the law.

"Back in that day, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a young lawyer, had a very radical idea. That idea was that under our Constitution, women should be treated equally with men," said West. "She set about accomplishing that goal, arguing a series of cases before the U.S. Supreme Court that literally did change the world for American women." 

One such case involved a woman named Lilly Ledbetter, an area manager for Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Gadsden, Ala. plant.

"In the Lilly Ledbetter case, a woman discovered — years after she'd been doing her job — that she'd been being paid much less than the men doing the same thing," West said. 

Ledbetter filed a sex discrimination lawsuit against Goodyear in 1998 shortly after her retirement. The case found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, who ruled 5-4 against Ledbetter. The court argued that Ledbetter had no recourse because she did not file her suit within 180 days of her first paycheck. 

According to West, this decision angered Ginsberg. 

"Justice Ginsburg wrote that this just shows a complete lack of understanding of the way the world works," she said. "Ginsburg said, 'Hey Congress, perhaps you want to do something about this?'"

U.S. President Barack Obama is embraced by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on January 12, 2016. Obama's first official piece of legislation as president was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ginsburg framed a copy of the bill in her chambers. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Ginsburg's vocal opposition to the ruling helped set the stage for the passing of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009. The bill made this kind of discrimination illegal, according to West.

Ginsburg was so pleased with the bill that she framed a copy of the bill in her chambers.

West says the case is just one of many examples of Ginsburg's demand for equality for all Americans.

"In later years, you'd hear her talking about 'We the people,'" she said. "And by 'We the people,' she meant an expanded version of the 'We the people' that originally [weren't] considered when we started our country — women, African Americans, Indigenous people, eventually LGBTQ people." 

'Ugly' weeks ahead

It's relatively uncommon for a U.S. Supreme Court justice seat to become vacant during an election year.

Most recently, Antonin Scalia died in February of 2016 but his seat wasn't filled before the presidential election. 

At the time U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Americans should have a say in the new court justice and it was too close to the election. As a result, Senate Republicans refused for 11 months to hold hearings on President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland.

But Friday night, McConnell said in a statement that a nominee put forward by Donald Trump would get a vote in the Senate, despite the fact the presidential election is less than two months away. 

From left: U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito listen as US President Trump speaks during the swearing-in ceremony of Brett Kavanaugh (right) as Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

"The next few weeks are going to get uglier than anyone can imagine," said Linda Feldmann, the White House correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. "It was already a very ugly presidential campaign, and adding this new explosive element just makes it — honestly, I can't imagine, I'm just bracing myself." 

Feldmann said the issues at stake in appointing a new justice are 'profound' and include things such as affirmative action, gun rights and abortion rights, granted to women across the U.S. with the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. 

"I'm not certain that even the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg signals the end of Roe v. Wade, but certainly it puts it on life support," she said. 

Feldmann says Trump could nominate someone "within days" and it's possible a new justice could be seated before Inauguration Day on January 20th. 

There are 100 senators, and 53 of those are Republicans. A majority would need to vote in favour of the nominee, but Feldmann says it's not a given all the Republican senators will do so.

"You have some Republican senators who are ... in big trouble, they're in battleground states. We've got one in Maine, one in Colorado, one in North Carolina," said Feldmann. "You've got Mitt Romney, who has become increasingly antagonistic toward President Trump. It's not clear that Senator Romney would vote to seat a justice quickly."

However, Ginsburg's death may not benefit Trump as much as may be expected, she said.

"There has been a lack of a relative lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden. But what the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg does is allow Joe Biden to talk about the crucial importance of the Supreme Court and of the meaning of this vacancy," she said. 

Written by Mouhamad Rachini and Andrea Bellemare. Produced by Laurie Allan.