It is not often when a number ‘two’ outshines a number ‘one.’ It’s just not. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, never outshone Neil Armstrong. But on the nation’s highest court, it’s Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the high court and not her predecessor, Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, whose name jumps out.
Justice Ginsburg died last Friday. It was not unexpected. Rather than ‘breaking news,’ it was more heart-breaking news for millions of Americans. She had, after all, battled multiple bouts of cancer and was 87. But the announcement of her passing still caught a nation’s attention. Time didn’t stop. It just seemed that way. It was an American seminal moment.
Justice Ginsburg became more than simply a Supreme Court Justice---a staggering accomplishment in itself. She became an American icon by virtue of her legal and intellectual prowess. This was confirmed when thousands gathered throughout the weekend outside the Supreme Court to remember her in song, flowers and prayer.
She was ‘the Notorious RBG,’ a playful nod to the rapper, The Notorious B.I.G; an indefatigable feminist; a brilliant jurist; a heroine; an inspiration and role model for multiple generations of women.
“Her appointment was significant to me,” said Judge Maria Teresa ‘Terry’ Fox, Colorado’s first Latina appointed to the state Court of Appeals. Judge Fox began practicing law in 1993, the same year Justice Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court. From a distance, said Judge Fox, “I followed her career.” In a way, she could identify. Both overcame invisible and sometimes impossible to negotiate barriers that kept women out of law or shackled to careers with little chance for advancement.
As a young girl, Judge Fox traveled with family as they followed the crops as migrant workers. In early adolescence, however, she got permission to move in with extended family in Colorado. She graduated high school with honors and went on to earn degrees in engineering from Colorado School of Mines and later a law degree from the University of Houston.
Justice Ginsburg’s path also included academic honors, including high school, at Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia Law where she finished at the top of her class. Still, despite a sterling résumé, “no law firm in the city of New York,” she recalled, would hire her. That treatment would shape the course of her legal journey, her opinions along with her dissents. Silence, even in defeat, was not her hallmark. Instead it served as motivation and prelude for her quiet eloquence, grace, and simplicity,
Justice Ginsburg prevailed in scores of high court rulings. But it may actually have been when she wasn’t in the majority that demonstrated her brilliance and resolve. And she often did it in just three syllables: “I dissent.”
“She was the conscience of the court,” said Judge Fox. “She was known for her direct and powerful dissents…she dissented in some very, very significant cases that affect women.” One such moment was in an employment discrimination case. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber.
Justice Ginsburg authored the dissent in a case that denied Lilly Ledbetter the right to sue her employer for gender-based pay discrimination. Only as she readied for retirement did Ledbetter learn that male colleagues in equal jobs had been making thousands of dollars more than she and other women. The Court ruled against her, claiming her filing had come too late.
Though Justice Ginsburg frequently fought on the wrong side of 5-4 rulings, her dissents resonated. Among them were Bush v. Gore, the 2000 Presidential Election, Gonzales v. Carhart, a case involving a woman’s right to choose and, perhaps her most famous Court loss, Shelby County v. Holder.
The case struck down significant sections of The Voting Rights Act allowing predominately Southern states from having to clear voting changes with the federal government often referred to as preclearance.
Justice Ginsburg’s dissent was searing, terse in its simplicity and aimed directly at Chief Justice John Roberts. “Throwing out preclearance,” said the Justice, “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.”
Justice Ginsburg’s death has inspired reverent and unambiguous remembrances across the nation. Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette offered a simple recollection. “From the beautiful collars draped over her robe to her fearless legal actions, RBG was truly one-of-a-kind. I am honored to live in a country shaped by her mind and by her legacy.”
The Justice’s stature, while secure with millions, is anything but with those who will fill her now empty seat. Days before passing, Justice Ginsburg dictated to her granddaughter, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Despite affirmation by Clara Spera, her granddaughter, the current president has suggested it’s not true, ascribing it to fanciful spinning by Democratic leadership. The niece and others have confirmed its veracity.
But with a President who sees his choice as the ultimate variable in one of the most contentious legal equations of our time, along with mind-bending broken field reversals by Senate allies who once promised to wait until there was a new President before beginning the process of naming a new Justice, the next Supreme Court Justice will be viewed as the social antithesis of RBG and a lockstep vote with the conservative majority.
Whatever the timetable, said Judge Fox, Justice Ginsburg’s legacy was well-formed long ago and its stature will only grow. “She’s going to be immortalized. I don’t see her importance diminished,” she said. “I do not see her diminished in death.”
Justice Ginsburg was active on the high court and, until a recent setback, was still continuing with a physical workout that had further galvanized her pop culture, iconic image. But time, as it does for everyone, simply ran out and as the poet Emily Dickenson eloquently wrote, ‘Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.’
Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 1933-2020. As is said when a Jewish person has died, ‘May her memory be a blessing.’