The Notorious R.B.G.’s Most Influential SCOTUS Cases

Dec 2, 2020

Even before she ascended to the highest bench, the Supreme Court felt Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s impact. As an attorney, she argued in front of the Court six times, five of which she won. She went on to become the second woman ever appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States. By doing so, she inspired memes, movies, and multiple generations of women to attend law school. In recognition of her lasting influence, here are five times she changed the way society thinks about love, life, and the law.

1. The Voting Rights Act

In Shelby County v. Holder, the majority held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. The Act “required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting,” but “the Act applied that requirement only to some States.” Shelby Cty., Ala. v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529, 535 (2013). According to the Court, this practice – officially known as “preclearance” – was necessary when the Act passed, but was no longer so because “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” Id.

In the dissent heard ‘round the world, Justice Ginsburg, reading from the bench, retorted “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.” Id. at 590. The result of her dissent? Her now… well, notorious moniker: the Notorious RBG.

2. Social Security Benefits

In a landmark case that “propelled Ruth into national fame,” Ginsburg successfully argued that Stephen Wiesenfeld was entitled to Social Security benefits after his wife died giving birth to their son. Before Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, widowers were not entitled to survivors’ benefits under Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Brennan observed that “the gender-based distinction of § 402(g) is entirely irrational.” Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636, 651 (1975).

Wiesenfeld later recalled, “She wanted me there because she wanted the eight male justices… to see me, so they could identify with who was bringing this case.” Ironically, Ginsburg and Wiesenfeld later “found out three justices discussed the case before they even heard it. They were discussing how disgusting it was that a male wanted to stay home and take care of a child.”

3. The Military

Choosing only one Ginsburg case involving the military is nearly impossible: she “helped end the military’s policy of forced abortion,” opened the Virginia Military Institute to women, and ushered in a new era of LBGTQ+ rights. However, there is one case that may have started it all: Frontiero v. Richardson, where Ginsburg, representing the ACLU as amicus curiae, argued before the Court for the first time.

In Frontiero, Sharron Frontiero, a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, applied for increased benefits for her husband as a “dependent,” but was denied because she did not “demonstrate that her husband was dependent on her for more than one-half of his support.” Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677, 680 (1973). In comparison, “such benefits would automatically have been granted with respect to the wife of a male member of the uniformed services.” Id.

Writing a plurality opinion, Justice Brennan explained “under 37 U.S.C. §§ 401, 403, and 10 U.S.C. §§ 1072, 1076, a female member of the uniformed services seeking to obtain housing and medical benefits for her spouse must prove his dependency in fact, whereas no such burden is imposed upon male members.” Id. at 688. The Court “therefore conclude[d] that… the challenged statutes violate the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment insofar as they require a female member to prove the dependency of her husband.” Id at 690 – 691. In turn, Frontiero later paved the way for other discrimination cases, including Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld.


4. U.S. Citizenship

Ginsburg became a cultural icon for a variety of reasons, including her “dissent collar,” rigorous workout routine, and friendship with Justice Scalia. However, in legal circles, she inspired a cult following for another reason: her clear and concise writing.

Perhaps one of the best examples is the first sentence in her majority opinion of Sessions v. Morales-Santana, where she crisply explained, “This case concerns a gender-based differential in the law governing acquisition of U.S. citizenship by a child born abroad, when one parent is a U.S. citizen, the other, a citizen of another nation.” Sessions v. Morales-Santana, 137 S. Ct. 1678, 1686 (2017). The then-law required “a period of physical presence in the United States for the U.S.-citizen parent…[for] five years prebirth.” Id. That said, Congress had carved out a single exception for unwed mothers, who only needed one year of physical presence to “transmit her citizenship to a child bord abroad.” Id.

The Court held that “that the gender line Congress drew is incompatible with the requirement that the Government accord to all persons ‘the equal protection of the laws’” and therefore, Congress must choose a physical presence requirement applicable to all children with one U.S. citizen parent. Id. In doing so, the Court cited, among others, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Frontiero v. Richardson, and Reed v. Reed.

5. Administration of Estates

While this case was not an outright “win,” Reed v. Reed was the first Supreme Court case to explore the constitutionality of gender discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause. In Reed, Sally Reed sought appointment as administratrix of her son’s estate after his death. Her estranged husband, Cecil, then filed a competing petition, also seeking appointment of his son’s estate. Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71, 72 (1971). The Probate Court subsequently appointed Cecil because as “a male, [he] was to be preferred to” Sally “by reason of Section 15-314 of the Idaho Code.” Id. at 73. The Idaho Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, reasoning that “the elimination of females from consideration ‘is neither an illogical nor arbitrary method devised by the legislature to resolve an issue that would otherwise require a hearing as to the relative merits  of the two or more petitioning relatives.’” Id. at 76 (internal punctuation omitted).

Ginsburg, who was a volunteer attorney for the ACLU, co-wrote a massive brief on behalf of Sally. Even though the brief “devoted forty-six pages to the strict scrutiny standard” and a mere “seven pages [to] arguing the fallback position that the statute should be invalidated under a rational basis test,” the Court reversed on the grounds that there was not a rational relationship between the law and its objectives. While the holding was overall welcomed, the Court’s decision to apply the rational basis test meant that gender discrimination would be decided on a case-by-case basis. If the Court held the law unconstitutional under the strict scrutiny standard, future gender discrimination would be upheld only if it served a compelling state interest.


When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has. To do something, as my colleague David Souter would say, outside myself. ‘Cause I’ve gotten much more satisfaction for the things that I’ve done for which I was not paid.” Ginsburg unquestionably did this and more, which is why she may be gone, but she will not be forgotten.