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A transformed US Supreme Court pays tribute to Justice Ginsburg

By Andrew Chung and John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court's current members, joined by judges, scholars, lawyers and government officials, paid tribute on Friday to the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal icon and women's rights pioneer whose 2020 death opened the door to the top U.S. judicial body's transformative rightward shift.

A rare meeting of the Supreme Court Bar, composed of attorneys admitted to practice law before the court, featured speeches from people who worked closely with Ginsburg including U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar, who argues cases for President Joe Biden's administration.

"Her life was a quintessentially American story," Prelogar said. "She was born to a family of immigrants, and grew up with modest means. She faced profound adversity and discrimination. Yet, through her intellect, hard work and force of will, she not only reached the top of her profession, she reshaped it. She broke barriers for those who came after her and she inspired multiple generations."

A similar meeting was held following the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose memory looms large among conservatives just as Ginsburg's does among liberals. The two jurists were close friends who shared an affection for opera.

Ginsburg's death at age 87 after a bout with cancer was an inflection point for the court.

It enabled then-President Donald Trump to make a third appointment to the court - Amy Coney Barrett - who was rapidly confirmed by a Senate then controlled by his fellow Republicans. That gave the court a 6-3 conservative majority, further diminishing the power of its liberal bloc and paving the way for rulings like last year's decision ending the recognition of a constitutional right to abortion.

Trump also appointed conservative Justices Neil Gorsuch in 2017 and Brett Kavanaugh in 2018.

The conservative majority has shown no hesitation in taking on contentious issues, also including last year's ruling widening gun rights. Based on arguments held since their current term began in October, the conservative justices appear poised in the coming months to end affirmative action policies used by colleges and universities to increase campus racial diversity, further undermine a federal law barring racial discrimination in voting and enable businesses to refuse certain services to LGBT people based on constitutional free-speech rights.

Barrett was confirmed by Senate Republicans a week before the 2020 presidential election. Democrats accused them of hypocrisy after Republicans refused to act on Democratic President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia during a presidential election year in 2016.

Garland, a former appellate judge who now serves as U.S. attorney general, spoke about Ginsburg at a special sitting of the court following the bar meeting.

Garland recalled first encountering Ginsburg in 1978 at the Supreme Court when he was a clerk for Justice William Brennan and she was an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer delivering an oral argument. Garland said the justices had told the clerks Ginsburg "was the best advocate we would hear that term, and she did not disappoint."

Ginsburg was a "brilliant, courageous and principled" advocate and jurist whose impact on the court and her country "will be felt for generations to come," Garland added.

Chief Justice John Roberts said Ginsburg "used the law to change our country profoundly for the better as an advocate prior to becoming a member of this court." Roberts highlighted Ginsburg's life outside the law and her unexpected ascent to "rock star" status as a bespectacled justice-turned-cultural phenomenon dubbed the "Notorious R.B.G." She even would inspire some little girls to dress up as her on Halloween, he added.

"Now, to be clear, Ruth absolutely loved every minute of it," Roberts said.

She rose from a working class New York City upbringing and prevailed over the legal profession's systemic sexism to become one of America's best-known jurists. Appointed to the Supreme Court by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg provided key votes in rulings securing equal rights for women, expanding gay rights and safeguarding abortion rights.

Ginsburg was the second woman ever named to the court. It now for the first time has four female justices.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)