The fighter who changed the world for women
Will her death also be the death of US justice? Many say Donald Trump's move to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before the presidential election is an abuse of power.
There was only one story in the international news this weekend – the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman ever to serve as a justice of the Supreme Court of the USA and a much-beloved liberal icon.
Born in 1933 to Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, Ginsburg often credited her inspiration as her mother – a mother who died the day before young Ruth left high school. After meeting her husband Marty Ginsburg at university, Ruth was one of nine women (out of a class of 500) accepted to Harvard Law School in 1956.
When Marty fell ill with cancer, however, Ginsburg took care of him and typed up his dissertation, while also raising their toddler and tending to her own studies, usually in the early hours of the morning.
These setbacks did not stop her coming top of her class – but she found herself unable to secure a single job offer on graduation – the first of her many encounters with blatant sexism in the workplace.
Ginsburg made her first successful appearance before the Supreme Court in 1971 in the historic Reed v Reed case, the first law to be struck down on the grounds of gender-based discrimination.
The following year, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, launching a series of gender-discrimination cases between 1973 and 1978, while also becoming the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School. In one of her most significant early cases as a justice, Ginsburg co-authored the majority opinion that struck down the men-only admissions policy at the Virginia Military Institute.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone of her profession, Ginsburg not only enjoyed a high personal profile but also became a quasi-cult figure towards the end of her life, in large part due to the creation of the film The Notorious RBG.
Known for her forceful dissent and biting criticism of her colleagues, Ginsburg’s tiny 5-ft-frame battled five major run-ins with cancer over two decades, while only missing two major cases as a result. She continued to work right until the very end.
Yet her death led not only to an outburst of mourning but also to cries of fear and indignation in some quarters as Donald Trump announced that he would be making his third lifetime appointment to the nine-justice Supreme Court, a mere 42 days before the upcoming US general election.
Trump's move is an "abuse of power", his Democratic rival Joe Biden says – urging Senate Republicans to delay a confirmation vote.
It is unclear if the Senate would confirm the nominee, but the Democrats are already raging against the hypocrisy and threat to democracy this would represent, pointing to the notorious filibustering in 2016, when the Republicans devoted nearly a year to successfully preventing Obama from filling a then vacancy.
Trump’s likely candidate, Amy Coney Barrett, would further shift the ideological balance of the already-polarised court sharply to the right, giving it a 6-3 conservative majority. In view of the vast power of the Supreme Court and the oft-discussed rise of tribalism in US politics, such an outcome could lead to the retreat of progressive reforms for a lifetime.
So, does the death of Ginsburg mean the death of US justice?
Some argue yes. It will ensure that the US politics and justice system falls prey to reactionary conservatism. There are already ominous rumblings from certain evangelical circles about repealing Roe v Wade. Since appointments last for a lifetime, it is crucial that no one side enjoys such a significant majority.
Others disagree. Trump was democratically elected by the people and has both a duty and the right to nominate whom he pleases in accordance with Article Two of the Constitution. Besides, “justice” comes in many forms and should not automatically be equated with the progressive policies of the left.
- How important is it to follow the law if you believe it to be unjust?
- Is it possible to have two mutually exclusive yet equally legitimate conceptions of justice?
- Imagine you are at a dinner with the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg beside you. What five things would you ask her and why?
- Ginsburg famously enjoyed a good personal friendship with her political enemy, Antonin Scalia. Write a short essay highlighting the potential benefits for, and difficulties with, such a relationship.
Some People Say...
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”Martin Luther King Jr (1929–68), civil rights activist.
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- The justices of the Supreme Court, once nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, serve for life. It is generally agreed that this policy is designed not only to provide continuity and consistency over a significant period of time but also to protect the cause of justice by freeing and thereby protecting judges – unlike politicians – from the pressures and restraints of the ballot box.
- What do we not know?
- One increasingly urgent area of debate centres around the fact that since vacancies arise only sporadically and unpredictably, the composition of the US final court of appeals can reflect a misleading, and even unfair, state of affairs. Notably, the Republicans have created 15 of the last 19 justices, despite having lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. Some Democrats have suggested establishing new Democratic-leaning states and/or expanding the Supreme Court to dilute the conservative votes.
- Supreme Court
- Part of the third branch of government in the USA and the highest court of the land. It is made up of nine justices (judges) and has the power to make landmark decisions that can fundamentally transform the entire country.
- Reed v Reed
- Law case that examined whether men could automatically be given preference over women as estate executors, previously defended on the grounds of men’s presumed greater familiarity with the world of business.
- American Civil Liberties Union, a non-profit organisation founded in 1920. It provides legal assistance in cases where it considers civil liberties to be at risk.
- A contractual right that grants an instructor or professor at a higher education institution permanent employment, providing legal protection against summary dismissal without a just cause. It is increasingly being granted mainly to those who are exceptionally gifted and prolific in their fields.
- Virginia Military Institute
- Founded in 1839, it is the oldest state-supported military college in the US.
- The Notorious RBG
- A Tumblr page created by a young law student (Shana Knizhnik)and dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.The page introduced her to a new generation of young feminists and propelled her to cult-like status. It also inspired a documentary, a Hollywood biopic starring Felicity Jones as well as Halloween costumes.
- The upper chamber of the Congress that – along with the US House of Representatives (lower chamber) – comprises the legislative branch of the US government. Each of the 50 US states is equally represented by two senators, regardless of its population size.
- A political tactic used in the Senate to prevent a measure from being brought to vote by deliberately wasting time during a debate using excessively long speeches and/or raising unnecessary and extremely pedantic procedural points.
- Generally taken to mean in political philosophy a position that supports change and social reform, rooted in the idea of progress and advancement that abounded in the Age of Enlightenment.
- Roe v Wade
- Landmark 1973 ruling that protected a pregnant woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction, striking down existing US state and federal abortion laws.
- Article Two
- Establishes the executive branch of the federal government i.e. the president. It details the powers and responsibilities of the office, while also laying out the procedures for electing and removing the president.