Following the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Connecticut’s female lawyers, judges and other residents Saturday mourned the passing of the “warrior of justice.”
Ginsburg died Friday in Washington of complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was 87. Throughout her decadeslong career, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court was considered an icon of millions, a hero who supported “equality and justice for all.” For some Americans, she also represented the final hope for progressive control of the nation’s highest court.
“She was small in stature, but God was she fierce,” said Quinnipiac Law Professor Marilyn Ford, a former student of Ginsburg’s at the Rutgers Law School in Newark. Ford said she transferred to Rutgers from the University of Iowa during the early 1970s in part because of active civil rights professors like Ginsburg.
“I’m a civil rights child. I was born in Arkansas, so I know Jim Crow segregation. I lived Jim Crow segregation,” Ford said. “I decided that I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, [and] Rutgers was the place to be.”
At the New Jersey university, Ford said she connected most deeply with Ginsburg outside the classroom, in smaller sessions the justice held for female students. At the time, Ford said Ginsburg was one of few female professors at Rutgers, and one of the first to teach women’s studies.
“I came to Rutgers because I wanted to do Black civil rights issues ... and she was one of the first to point out that civil rights were civil rights," she said. "She talked about women’s rights with the same fervor that she talked about Black civil rights. That’s what I began to focus on, discrimination [and] oppression. ... If we don’t all have rights, none of us have rights. That was the lesson I learned.”
Ford credits Ginsburg with guiding her career after graduation. Although Ginsburg graduated tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School, no Wall Street firms made her an offer. Still, she told female students that such an environment was a “great training ground” and afterwards they could pursue whatever they wanted. Years later, Ford followed Ginsburg’s footsteps into education.
Ford said she considers Ginsburg a role model and inspiration “for all humanity.”
“Justice Ginsburg was not an obstructionist, but she was a great dissenter. She spoke truth to power throughout her life. I think that’s a very important thing people should remember,” Ford said. "[She] stood for something. ... She was committed to civil rights, equality and justice for all.”
Retired Connecticut Supreme Court Chief Justice Chase Rogers considers herself one of the women for whom Ginsburg opened so many doors.
“In terms of her work, she had great clarity that the constitution provided for gender equality, and that was her mission, to make sure people understood that and laws reflected that,” Rogers said. Both Ginsburg and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor “represent that you really could do anything if you were willing to do the work and had the guts to keep pushing," she said.
Rogers particularly admired Ginsburg’s courage to dissent during the 2006-2007 Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. case. The Supreme Court ruled “employees cannot challenge ongoing pay discrimination if the employer’s original discriminatory pay decision occurred outside of the statute of limitations period,” according to the National Women’s Law Center, “even when the employee continues to receive paychecks that have been discriminatorily reduced.”
“When she read the Ledbetter dissent from the bench, that was a very strong statement that she was not going to be ignored," Rogers said. "Of course, the result of that was a change in the statutory law ... ultimately ending up with the Fair Pay Act.”
Ginsburg’s former clerk Abbe Gluck, now a Yale Law School professor, was unavailable for comment Saturday but in a statement to the National Law Journal, she said, “‘Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,’- ‘Justice, Justice you shall pursue … that you may thrive.’ A favorite Hebrew phrase of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a fitting one to invoke on her tragic passing at the dawn of the Jewish new year.”
“Justice Ginsburg thrived in the law, and the law thrived in her,” Gluck continued. “She broke barriers from she time she was a young girl. She reconceptualized gender equality as an advocate in the 1970s and saw her vision realized, both through her victories then and through her own jurisprudence later on the bench. ... She modeled in her personal life for so many of us — including for former law clerks like me and for little girls like my daughter — feminist strength, an incomparable work ethic, and what it means to be in an equal partnership at home. Her brilliance was matched only by her heart. The loss is immeasurable.”
UConn School of Law Dean Eboni Nelson noted the huge crowds who gathered at the U.S. Supreme Court steps in Washington Friday night to mourn the justice’s passing.
“Despite her wonderful successes professionally, she was always very well regarded and very down to earth, able to connect with so many people. I think that’s really what resonated," said Nelson, who felt connected to Ginsburg through their similar work on equal opportunity for students of color and educational justice.
“It’s a testament to how many people she had touched, not just personally, but through her opinions. ... People really saw themselves in her work,” she said. “People felt that she was advocating for them, whether that was because of their race, their sexual orientation, their religion, their gender, they all felt that we had an advocate in her.”
The petite dynamo who championed feminism, LGBTQ equality and civil liberties for people with disabilities was a hero to Virginia Higley of Enfield.
"We have it easier as women because of people like her,'' said Higley, a retired town planner.
Higley measured Ginsburg’s influence in the gains women have made over the past 50 years.
"When I was growing up, you had to be a nurse or a teacher and there’s nothing wrong with either of those professions, but why not a lawyer or a state representative? She helped change all that,'' Higley said.
Charlotte Koskoff, a lawyer from Plainville, said Ginsburg’s death resonates so deeply with liberal voters because they are already distraught about the direction of the country.
"We lost one of our heroes at a time we already feel so vulnerable and victimized,'' said Koskoff, a Democrat who ran for Congress three times in the 1990s. “Hers is such an important voice to be silenced.”
Friday afternoon, hours before Ginsburg’s death became public, Koskoff was working with a group who were writing postcards and making calls on behalf of Democratic candidates. "We were all talking about Ginsburg and saying that she has to make it,'' Koskoff said. “She represents the best and now we’re living through the worst.”
Cheryl Hilton’s phone started blowing up Friday night with a deluge of texts and Facebook messages from friends about Ginsburg’s death.
"My first reaction was a word you can’t print,'' said the 50-year-old real estate broker from Southington. “We were all just devastated ... she fought so hard and we were all just selfishly hoping she would be able to stay on the court until after the election.”
Hilton said her grief over Ginsburg’s death is mixed with anxiety about the future. She is an administrator of Southington Women for Progress, a nonpartisan community group of about 300 people dedicated to social justice.
"We think the best way we can honor her legacy is to get out and vote,'' Hilton said.
Amanda Blanco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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