Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted a fair shot from America. Facing discrimination due to her gender, she spent her life making this a more just and equal nation.
The United States, in turn, heaped a lot on her diminutive, sturdy shoulders. Her death on Friday at age 87 put that squarely into focus.
The nation would be mourning Ginsburg today even if she never earned confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. Her pioneering work on behalf of American women and in defense of equal rights secured her place in history long before her 1993 nomination.
As co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued some of the foundational cases that expanded the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to include gender discrimination.
She was an initially reluctant if determined trailblazer, someone whose fight for equality was born of personal adversity and as a witness to discrimination. Ginsburg was one of nine women in her class at Harvard Law School when the dean, hosting a dinner, asked each of the female students “to stand up and tell him what we were doing taking a seat that could be occupied by a man.”
She ultimately argued more than 300 cases about gender discrimination, winning five of the six she argued before the Supreme Court. That was before spending 13 years on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which led to her appointment to the Supreme Court.
Her advocacy for gender equality continued there, including her landmark decision in United States v. Virginia which opened the Virginia Military Institute to female cadets, though the list of her most influential opinions is hardly confined to that one area of the law.
In fact, it was often when she was on the losing side of an argument — writing in dissent — that she crafted some of her most powerful and compelling arguments. In some cases, it was enough to prod federal lawmakers into finding legislative remedies, as the system is intended to work.
Her death last week hit women especially hard given the polarization of the court and the possibility that gains for gender equality, reproductive rights and health care access may be undone should her successor solidify a conservative majority.
The U.S Supreme Court remains the most opaque of the principal institutions of our federal system. Its deliberations are held in secret; its sessions are not broadcast or even filmed. The court in May allowed live audio broadcasts of its oral arguments for the first time, meaning it took a pandemic for the justices to warm to 19th century technology.
Precious little is truly known about how the justices go about their important work. Yet the court holds tremendous sway over the nation, wielding its power of judicial review to strike down laws, shape policies and interpret the U.S. Constitution in whatever manner wins the argument and carries the day.
Ginsburg was the second-longest tenured justice serving in the court — Clarence Thomas joined two years before her confirmation — and she outlasted three members who retired and are still living: Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy and David Souter.
Souter’s brief statement of tribute to Ginsburg speaks volumes: “Ruth Ginsburg was one of the members of the court who achieved greatness before she became a great justice. I loved her to pieces.”
Much has been made, especially in recent years, about Ginsburg’s place on the court and her influential role among the liberal wing. But it’s important to remember that she, like her close friend and frequent foil Antonin Scalia, cared deeply about the institution and its place in the public trust.
That is diminished when the nation’s leaders value partisan loyalties over judicial independence or legal experience. And it is especially worrisome at so pivotal and delicate a moment in the nation’s history.
The United States is better for Ginsberg’s public service. Will elected officials charged with choosing her replacement be able to say the same?
©2020 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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