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People gather at the Supreme Court on the morning after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020 in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

What RBG means to me

A Pennsylvania federal judge, the first female chief judge in her district, remembers the life of trailblazing jurist Ruth Bader Ginsburg


By Donetta Ambrose as told to Kimberly Palmiero

There’s just an unbelievable sadness, where you have lost a remarkable, remarkable pioneer for so many things that I believe in, and I know all women do. This is a woman who dedicated her entire professional career to gender equity. And in fact, equity for everyone.

She wanted to make sure that everyone, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of any kind of disability, was included.

We, the people, were the focus of her entire professional career, which is remarkable to me, this woman who had the foresight early in her career to understand the importance of gender equity and to devote herself to making sure that that would be achieved for people like me. It means everything.

"We are missing a remarkable pioneer, a person who never gave up."

Guards salute the casket of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as it is brought out to lie in repose at the top of the U.S. Supreme Court steps in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. (Pete Marovich/American Reportage)

Mourners attend a vigil on Saturday evening following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the night before at the age of 87. (Pete Marovich/American Reportage)

Mourners attend a vigil on Saturday evening following the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg the night before at the age of 87. (Pete Marovich/American Reportage)

When I graduated from high school, most of the women in my class who were going on to higher education were doing two things. They were either being teachers or nurses. And I thought I would be a teacher. I really respect teachers so much to this day, and I would love to have been a teacher.

I went to a university merely because the principal of my high school told my parents that I might decide that I didn’t want to be a teacher.

The principal convinced my parents that I should go to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh because there were other options available. I found it to be the most satisfying and enjoyable academic experience I’d ever had.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I were both Clinton appointees. Prior to even that, I was aware of the work that she had done before the Supreme Court in fighting for gender equity issues. I was so honored to find out that we were both in that first group of Clinton appointees. She, of course, went to the Supreme Court of the United States, which was magnificent. She was nominated in August of 1993.

I was nominated in September of 1993. So I was following that so closely and did find more about her career then, and so admired her. It was to me kind of a kinship because there were many women in that group, many more than there had been in the years preceding the nineties.

I think we did all form a kinship. Some of my closest friends in the judiciary are from that generation — people that I met when I was just becoming a federal judge.

I met Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a meeting of the National Association of Women Judges, a group that was founded by Sandra Day O’Connor, and that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also involved in. We were at a convention in Washington, DC. with some other women, judicial friends of mine, and she and Justice O’Connor were both there. They were so engaging.

This was soon after there had been an argument before the court where the litigator kept mixing up their names. He kept calling Justice O’Connor, Justice Ginsburg, and Justice Ginsburg, Justice O’Connor. So when they came out at our meeting at the National Association of Women Judges, they wore T-shirts and one of them said, I’m Sandy, not Ruthie. And the other said I’m Ruthie, not Sandy. That was very cute. And we all appreciated that. It was a real gathering of women with common interests, but also wanting to have a good time. And they were both very, very engaging.

She was just brilliant.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks to law students at Ohio State University to reflect on her years with the U.S. Supreme Court Friday, April 10, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

Also, her dissents were of course as important as her opinions because I think she was writing them for the future and hoping that things would change.

There is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 which is near and dear to my heart.

That was a dissent, which led to President Obama changing the law because a woman had been discriminated against merely because she was a woman. That case was near and dear to me. Because I had a situation that was very much like that in my life.

I was an assistant district attorney, which was a part-time job in Westmoreland County for several years. We were all part-time and it was not a situation where seniority was an issue. And I found out that all the men were making, I think it was $12,000. It wasn’t much, you know what we’re talking about the seventies and I was making $9,700, but I was the only one. And I .. said, what’s going on here? I really stuck with it to the point where I got my extra $2,000.  So those things did happen.

And, and I think that Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew about these things. These things happen.

I also think about the Hobby Lobby dissent (Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.) where she was interested in making sure that women had the right to all the protections that the law could offer.

Those are things that I think about when I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg — how she always was fighting for everyone to be included as equal.

She was also a good example to me, because she had a wonderful marriage with a wonderfully supportive husband and a great family that she cared about more than anything. She had passion for the law, but she also had passion for her family.

I remember watching a documentary when she was teaching at Rutgers Law School and she got the phone call from her son’s school. And she said, “why don’t you call his father for once?” And I thought, “Good for you.”

We are missing a remarkable pioneer, a person who never gave up. That was the thing:  In spite of so many obstacles, she persevered, she kept going, she fought. She was going to make sure that she showed up.

She was just a brilliant woman and to lose anyone with that brilliance and that passion creates a huge hole.

(This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity by Kimberly Palmiero, CEO and editor in chief of Postindustrial)

Donetta Ambrose is a senior judge for the U.S. District of Western Pennsylvania. She was the first female chief judge for the Western District, serving in that role from 2002-09. President Bill Clinton appointed her to the federal bench in 1993. She’s served as a law clerk to a state Supreme Court justice, an assistant attorney general for the commonwealth, and an assistant district attorney in Westmoreland County. Ambrose in 1981 became the first woman to be elected as a judge to Common Pleas Court in Westmoreland County. She is from New Kensington, Pa.

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