Ruth Bader Ginsburg – A Fellow Disability Warrior

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    The Notorious RBG has become a feminist icon, and rightfully so. As a female attorney who graduated from a law school class comprised of 52% women, I know how far the legal profession has come since Justice Ginsburg’s law school days. It is undeniable that I have more options and autonomy than my mother, and my mother more than my grandmother. 

    Justice Ginsburg was a champion for women’s rights, but also for men’s rights and disability rights. As a young attorney, Justice Ginsburg successfully expanded Social Security survivor benefits to men via two seminal Supreme Court cases. Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975)(gender should not be considered when providing surviving spouse benefits to widowers); Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199 (1977) (husbands should be entitled to surviving spouse benefits during retirement regardless of their “dependency” on her income).

    Notable Disability Decisions

    Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999)

    As a Supreme Court Justice, Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion in the landmark ruling in Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999). The Olmstead case centered on Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson, two women with mental illness and developmental disabilities who remained at a state hospital for years even after they were medically cleared to move to community-based settings. 

    The Olmstead decision explained that first, “institutional placement of persons who can handle and benefit from community settings perpetuates unwarranted assumptions that persons so isolated are incapable or unworthy of participating in community life.” Ginsburg wrote, “Second, confinement in an institution severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals, including family relations, social contacts, work options, economic independence, educational advancement and cultural enrichment.” As a result of the Olmstead decision, hundreds of thousands of Americans with disabilities across the country now live and receive support in the community rather than in institutions.

    Lane v. Tennessee, 541 US 509 (2004)

    In a lesser known opinion, Justice Ginsburg recognized that in “including individuals with disabilities among people who count in composing ‘We the People,’ Congress understood in shaping the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), would sometimes require not blindfolded equality, but responsiveness to difference; not indifference, but accommodation.”

    This case involved the arrest of a person who used a wheelchair who refused to either crawl or be carried up the courthouse steps. Recognizing that “same treatment” and “blindfolded equality” was not enough to satisfy the mandates of equal opportunity, Justice Ginsburg paved a path to a broader, more just interpretation of the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law for people with disabilities. 

    Justice Ginsburg fully recognized that progress is incremental and often requires compromise. She befriended colleagues with opposite viewpoints and frequently thanked her predecessors for their work in moving our country forward. She understood that “real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

    While her notoriety is well deserved, she knew it was up to future generations to carry on her legacy and continue to fight for inclusion and justice for all people. The Disability Warriors at Liner Legal thank Justice Ginsburg for all her work, and we are ready to carry on the fight for people with disabilities. 

    – Rebecca Cervenak

    Rebecca is a disability attorney in Cleveland at Liner Legal. After graduating from Bowling Green State University, she went to law school and worked in San Diego before moving back to Ohio to join the best disability legal firm in Cleveland. She has a passion for her work and was greatly influenced by Justice Ginsburg. You’ll even see a nod to Justice Ginsburg in Rebecca’s headshot, wearing earrings that represent her Dissent Collar.  To learn more about Rebecca, click here.