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A Kindred Spirit: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Authors Guild mourns the loss of Associate Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, who died last Friday from pancreatic cancer. A towering advocate for equal rights, particularly in relation to sex discrimination, Ginsburg or “RBG” as she was affectionately called, was almost as famous for her dissenting opinions as she was for her five wins before the U.S. Supreme Court during her years as Director of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project when she successfully embarked on an audacious legal strategy that transformed the constitutional understanding of gender.

A lifelong devotee of literature and the arts, especially opera, Ginsburg also was known for her gift for writing and as an author of numerous books, articles, and speeches. While an undergraduate at Cornell University, she studied European literature under legendary author Vladimir Nabokov, whom Ginsburg credited for changing how she wrote. 

“Nabokov taught me how words could paint pictures and that choosing the right words in the right order could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea,” Ginsburg stated in the preface to My Own Words, a compilation of her speeches, essays, and articles published in 2015 by Simon & Schuster.

“My eye is on the reader…I try to be as clear and concise as I can be,” Ginsburg once said about her writing process. “I go through innumerable drafts.”

According to Irin Corman, co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ginsburg so valued the act of writing and the insights it could bring that she once demanded that her teenage son spend his summer writing an essay a day.

In April 2020, in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Ginsburg published her second book, I Know This Much to Be True: On Equality, Determination and Service, in which she reflects on her many years of service to the law, as well as her family life and struggle with cancer. In the book, she discusses everything from gender equality and fitness to literature and the importance of hard work.

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Joan Ruth Bader began using her middle name in kindergarten because there were just too many Joans in her class. No stranger to the tragedy of loss, Ruth lost her sister to meningitis when she was just six years old and her mother to cervical cancer the day before Ruth graduated high school. She won a scholarship to Cornell University where she met and fell in love with Martin Ginsburg, to whom she was married for 52 years until Martin’s death in 2010. The couple raised two children, Jane, the Morton L. Janklow Professor of Literary and Artistic Property Law at the Columbia Law School (and who has advised the Authors Guild on various projects over the years), and James, American music producer and founder and president of Cedille Records, a classical label.

Ginsburg attended the Harvard and Columbia University Law Schools and taught law at Rutgers and Columbia, where she became its first female tenured law professor. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed Ginsburg to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. President Bill Clinton then nominated her to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, where she sailed through the Senate confirmation hearing 97-3.

In 2009, Forbes named Ginsburg among the 100 Most Powerful Women. Glamour named her one of their 1993 Women of the Year and presented her with their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012. In 2015, Time listed her as an Icon in the Time 100, and in 2016, Fortune named her one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.

Although most widely known for her civil rights cases, Ginsburg also authored a number of important opinions and dissenting opinions on copyright law. Most prominently, she wrote the Court’s 2003 opinion in Eldred v. Ashcroft, upholding the constitutionality of the 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Ginsburg’s opinion championed the importance of authors’ rights to earn an income from their creations against the assertion that copyright must serve public ends by reminding us that “The two ends are not mutually exclusive; copyright law serves public ends by providing individuals with an incentive to pursue private ones.”

In Golan v. Holder, Ginsburg led a 6-2 majority of the Court in holding that Congress had the power to extend copyright protection to works that were previously in the public domain. Ginsburg’s other major copyright opinions include Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corporation v. Wall-Street.Com, which resolved a longstanding split between the federal circuit courts of appeals as to whether the Copyright Act required plaintiffs in copyright infringement claims to have secured registration before commencing litigation.

Even in her dissents, Ginsburg resolutely supported the rights of authors and creators. In the 2013 case Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.—which allowed the application of the “first sale doctrine” to imported copies of books, opening the door for the unauthorized importation and sale of cheaper editions specifically made for foreign markets alongside new and used copies in the domestic market—Ginsburg chastened the majority for trying to justify a holding that “shrinks to insignificance copyright protection against the unauthorized importation of foreign-made copies” with “imaginary” concerns.

For Ginsburg, dissents were as important and powerful as the voice of a unanimous Court. “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’” Ginsburg said in an NPR interview. “But the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenter’s hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”

Writing not for today, but for tomorrow… In this, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was truly a kindred spirit of authors everywhere.

We send our deepest condolences to her family and many friends.