There will be much written in the coming days about the political battle we are about to enter over the Supreme Court of the United States. After all, President Donald Trump has already called for swift action to fill the just-vacated seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and we have a Senate majority leader who will contort his own principles to his party’s advantage every time, even if he directly contradicts his own earlier positions.
No matter the outcome, we have already gotten our pre-October surprise; how this affects the 2020 presidential election remains to be seen, but there is no question that it will affect it.
But setting all the politics aside, I want to pause and focus on honoring Ginsburg's life. After all, we have lost an icon. Our country was richer for her life and work, and is poorer in her passing.
A champion of justice
Ginsburg was always considered a champion of women’s rights, which she was. She was, however, much more than that — she was a champion of human rights.
As someone who faced down gender discrimination at every step of her career — from trying to get into law school, to getting a clerkship, to being paid equally in her first academic job at Rutgers — she was extremely strategic. She did not approach the cases that she took from a solely female perspective, she viewed them through the lens of equity. She often took cases where men were being discriminated against under the law. In winning those cases, she laid the basis that the law should never be used to foster gender discrimination.
While she was considered a reliably liberal vote, in reality she was a staunch defender of the Constitution and its protection of individual rights. She fervently believed in the dignity of all people, and that was reflected in her jurisprudence. She respected the law so much, it drove her to do what she felt was called for by its letter.
As a result, her opinions were clear and concise, and in her assumed role as the “great dissenter," she was careful to note that dissents can greatly affect the direction of the court in future cases. Her body of work lives on and her commitment to social justice should not be forgotten.
A model of friendship
Her friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia demonstrated both her fealty to the Constitution above all else and her willingness to engage the other side in reasoned argument in a way that is sadly lacking in politics and public service today. Despite being a part of the liberal wing of the court, she worked well with Scalia, who was her polar opposite in terms of political perspective. Their friendship benefited the court and the country, and should serve as an example for all of us.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton shared a moment when visiting Scalia on Ginsburg’s birthday. Upon seeing two dozen roses that Scalia was planning to take to Ginsburg, Sutton asked what all those roses had ever done, and then asked Scalia to name one of the 5-4 decisions in which Scalia had been able to secure Ginsburg’s vote.
“Some things,” Scalia replied, “are more important than votes.”
While Ginsburg and Scalia came to very different conclusions on constitutional meaning, their willingness to work the judicial equivalent of “across the aisle” respectfully is all but nonexistent in politics today. I fear that with their deaths, and the passing of other statesmen and stateswomen, that healthy and respectful disagreement may be one of the most calamitous casualties.
Ginsburg was a powerful woman who assumed that role with humility. She was an exemplary public servant in every sense of that term; she used her position of power on behalf of others. She was quoted as saying:
"I tell law students … if you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill — very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself … something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you."
What a legacy she leaves behind. May we all strive to emulate her fervent commitment to our nation’s foundational principles, her willingness to work well with those with whom she disagreed and her commitment to leaving the world better than she found it.
Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, served as 50th governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001. This column originally appeared in the North Jersey Record.
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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Christine Todd Whitman: RBG — powerful, but humble — will be missed