Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, and a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, who became a much younger generation’s unlikely cultural icon, died due to complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2020 at her home in Washington. She was 87.
In her 27 years on the bench, Ginsburg transformed American society through the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, expanding women’s rights and later LGBTQ+ rights. A quiet and brilliant jurist, Ginsburg was devoted to the law, always doing justice to the views on the other side of the issue while articulating her argument — especially in her pointed dissenting opinions.
Justice Ginsburg was a master wordsmith, using her power with words to fight for justice, freedom, and a clean environment. The second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg’s pointed and powerful dissenting opinions earned her late-life rock stardom. Justice Ginsburg was a fighter.
She fought not only — and famously — for equal rights based on gender, race, and sexual orientation, but also for the environment. She championed the rights of citizens to take action in court to prevent environmental harm. She defended the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and authored several of the opinions that gave EPA the power and responsibility to regulate greenhouse gases. But most notably, she always defended an individual’s right to equality and dignity, and to determine the course of their own lives.
After the 2010 retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Justice Kagan succeeded, Justice Ginsburg became the senior member and de facto leader of a four-justice liberal bloc, consisting of the three female justices and Justice Stephen G. Breyer. Unless they could attract a fifth vote, which Justice Anthony M. Kennedy provided on increasingly rare occasions before his retirement in 2018, the four were often in dissent on the ideologically polarized court.
Later in her career, the champion of gender equality declared her support for the #MeToo movement, recounting this experience, and said it was “about time” for women to be able to stand up against sexual harassment. “For so long, women were silent, thinking there was nothing you could do about it,” she said in 2018. “But now the law is on the side of women, or men, who encounter harassment, and that’s a good thing.” Ginsburg was instrumental in changing the law, filing lawsuits against her university employers for pay discrimination and discrimination on the basis of sex.
As news spread of Ginsburg’s death Friday night, a shrine of memorabilia emerged outside a Collegetown apartment. And the next afternoon, a crowd of masked students gathered on the Arts Quad for a vigil.
“We can’t help but look to someone like R.B.G. and say, ‘This is an icon. This is a role model,’” Cosimo Fabrizio ’22 said. “She is someone I aspire to be, if not in a career path, in her commitment to making this country a more equitable, just society.”
The octogenarian became a kind of rock star, known for her powerful dissenting opinions and transformative influence. Two movies came out about the justice in 2018, young girls dressed in R.B.G. costumes for Halloween and the image of a severe Ginsburg with oversized glasses and her frilly lace “dissenting” collar appeared as stickers, t-shirts and even tattoos.
As Justice Ginsburg passed her 80th birthday and 20th anniversary on the Supreme Court bench during President Barack Obama’s second term, she shrugged off a chorus of calls for her to retire in order to give a Democratic president the chance to name her replacement. She planned to stay “as long as I can do the job full steam,” she would say, sometimes adding, “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”
As a young mother, Ginsburg was unable to get a job in a law firm after graduating from Harvard Law School. As one of four liberal justices on the highest court, her death raises the prospect of President Trump trying to expand the court’s conservative majority.
The Republicans-led US Senate should take her wishes into consideration as we honor her, noting that shortly before she died she dictated to her granddaughter, Clara Spera, that: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
After the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February of 2016, most Republican senators rallied behind a new idea — a new justice should not be voted on, or even given a hearing, until after a new president and Congress had been seated. This was nine months before the election and it meant that President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, was never given consideration. We are now only a few weeks away from an election, and any rush to confirm a nominee would be the height of hypocrisy.
We are dealing with multiple crises in the country: climate disruption, a pandemic, a reckoning on racial justice, economic turmoil, and widespread voter suppression. A sham confirmation process should not be the top priority. We should respect Justice Ginsburg’s final wishes. We should take action as she took action to speak truth to power and stand up for what’s right. We should honor her brilliant ability with words by sending a message to demand our senators wait to fill her seat until after the inauguration.