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Ginsburg wins Berggruen Prize for ‘thinker’ whose ideas changed society

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Herma Hill Kay Memorial Lecture on Monday at the University of California at Berkeley.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Herma Hill Kay Memorial Lecture on Monday at the University of California at Berkeley. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the 2019 winner of the Berggruen Prize for Culture and Philosophy, a $1 million award given annually to a “thinker whose ideas are shaping human self-understanding to advance humankind.”

The 86-year-old justice will donate the money to charity, the Berggruen Institute said.

Ginsburg was lauded by the jury that chose her “for her work in pioneering gender equality and strengthening the rule of law.”

The prize recognized not only Ginsburg’s 26 years on the Supreme Court, but her work as an advocate for women’s rights. As a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg quarterbacked a team of lawyers that brought six cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s and helped establish that the constitutional guarantee of equal protection applied not only to racial minorities but to women as well.

She was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit by President Jimmy Carter, and President Bill Clinton chose her for the Supreme Court. She has received a burst of publicity and fandom as the “Notorious RBG,” and inspired a documentary and feature film last year.

The institute, founded by billionaire philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen, said she was chosen from a group of 500 who had been nominated for the prize, narrowed down to a list of five finalists.

In an interview, Berggruen, who was not involved in the selection, said Ginsburg was not the “traditional philosopher” the institute has chosen in the past.

“The prize is a way to celebrate ideas,” he said, adding that “the issues she has moved and been an important voice on are frankly the key issues that need to be addressed.”

Kwame Anthony Appiah, chair of the jury for the prize and a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, said in a statement:

“Few in our era have done more to bring vital philosophical ideas to fruition in practical affairs than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She has been both a visionary and a strategic leader in securing equality, fairness, and the rule of law not only in the realm of theory, but in social institutions and the lives of individuals.”

Judicial ethics guidelines allow judges to receive awards and honors, so long as they are not presented at fundraising events and are not from a group with matters before the court. Financial awards must be reported, and the jurist may designate nonprofit entities to receive the money.

Ginsburg will choose the charities and organizations before the award is presented Dec. 16 at a private event at the New York Public Library. She is the fourth recipient of the prize.

Philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum of the University of Chicago received the award in 2018 for “her framework for thinking about human capabilities, and exploring vulnerability, fear and anger in moral and political life.”