‘It’s for RBG’

Mourning a Hero in Brooklyn
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seen here in 2017, died Sept. 18, 2020 (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters).

On the afternoon of September 19, a couple of dozen people gathered outside a Brooklyn apartment building, eyes raised to the top-floor fire escape. Music came from a huge arena-style speaker partially hidden by an American flag. Asked what was going on, a white-haired woman answered from behind her mask: “It’s for RBG.” News of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had come the night before. Now came this small and impromptu memorial service. The opening strains of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” filled the street: Ginsburg famously loved opera. Up and down the block, people leaned from their windows to listen. The aria rose to its soaring climax, then yielded seamlessly to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”—a perfect choice, for obvious reasons.

But the mood was solemn and weighted with anxiety: What would Ginsburg’s passing portend for the country, not just in the days ahead, but also in the decades to come? Ginsburg had expressed her wish to live long enough for a new president to choose her replacement on the court; millions of other Americans hoped, maybe prayed, for the same. It was not to be. So this president will get his say, and the Republican-led Senate is likely to ram through his choice before the election or in the lame-duck session to follow. It would cement a conservative majority for a generation or more. More immediately, a rushed vote could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the court and worsen our already embattled politics.

The mood was solemn and weighted with anxiety: What would Ginsburg’s passing portend for the country, not just in the days ahead, but also in the decades to come?

As the de facto leader of the court’s liberal minority, Ginsburg developed a reputation for pointed dissents. When she read from the bench, her voice lent additional, no-nonsense moral gravity to her precisely written opinions, composed with the attention to word choice and image her college writing instructor—Vladimir Nabokov—had emphasized. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” she wrote in her Shelby County v. Holder dissent in 2013, evocatively disdaining the majority’s claim that key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act could be eliminated because racist voter suppression was a thing of the past. “When a justice is of the firm view that the majority got it wrong, she is free to say so in dissent,” she wrote later. “I take advantage of that prerogative, when I think it is important, as do my colleagues.”

As a young lawyer, Ginsburg brought about changes that played a role in her appointment to the Supreme Court in 1993 as only the second female justice. Denied academic jobs and clerkships on the basis of her sex—no matter her achievements at Harvard Law—she seized on the idea that the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied not just to racial discrimination, but also gender discrimination. In the 1970s, she won five such cases before the nine men of the high court. Her approach, she later explained, was to school male justices “who did not comprehend the differential  treatment of men and women...as in any sense burdensome to women.... To turn in a new direction, the court first had to gain an understanding that legislation apparently designed to benefit women could have the opposite effect.” This principle informed the majority opinion she wrote in 1996, ruling that the all-male Virginia Military Institute could no longer bar women. “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” She might have had herself in mind. There’s a reason Ginsburg was a hero to so many. Let her be an inspiration to countless more. 

Published in the October 2020 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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