Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Published 3:27 pm Tuesday, September 22, 2020

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I think we should talk about Ruth Ginsburg.

She was an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court who died Friday after a long battle with metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Justice Ginsburg and I disagreed over a lot of things. But we are living in times when people who disagree have lost the art of agreeable disagreement. I decline to take her death as a reason to diminish her. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that you don’t have to take part in every disagreement you are invited to.

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And if we take an honest look at who she was, there was a lot to admire.

She has been heralded as nothing less than a superhero, a secular saint. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had all of the state landmarks lit in blue in her honor. Not only that, but he’s also announced that the state will pay for and erect a statue in her honor in Brooklyn, where she is from.

The New York Times called her a feminist icon whose powerful dissenting opinion earned her the late-life status of a rock star. They are correct. She has been hailed widely and afforded the fame and coverage of a rock star. In fact, most of the press coverage has been less that of a public figure and more of a hagiography—biographical data arranged to idealize its subject.

In 2018 they made a documentary about her and called it R.B.G., her initials. Her followers were given to referring to this quiet, humble woman as the notorious R.B.G.—a name that is more akin to a gang member in Compton, California, that the daughter of a seamstress from the Bronx.

But what is true about her? I’ve kept up with her over the years, and I’ve spent more than a little time acquainting myself with her body of work on the Supreme Court.

Why the treatment?

Was she the first female appointed to the Supreme Court? No, she was the second. Ronald Reagan nominated Sandra Day O’ Connor to the court in 1981, and she was confirmed and sat on the court until her 2006 retirement.

Was she the first Jew appointed to the Supreme Court? No. If I count correctly she was the eight. Louis Brandeis was the first, and he was on the court from 1916 to 1939. Two Jewish justices–Associate Justices Steven Breyer and Elena Kagan–were also on the court with Ginsburg.

But if you combine two categories, she was the first female Jewish member of the United States Supreme Court. She died on a particularly Jewish holiday, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, as America’s nearly six million Jews celebrate the beginning of the year 5781 on their calendar.

Her academic credentials were impeccable: she graduated from Cornell, then attended Harvard Law School, then transferred to Columbia Law School where she graduated tied first in her class. She became a law professor, but later became a volunteer lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union, where she eventually was asked to serve on its board of directors and finally became its general counsel. It was there she did the work that took her to the Supreme Court.

When people think of her they think of her strong pro-abortion stance. Her position was simple—that the government should have no say about whether a woman should be allowed to have an abortion. Her very clear position on abortion was her main claim to fame.

To be clear, I do not share her position on abortion. Not at all. But her death is not the best platform for revisiting that issue. And she should not be thought of only for that position.

What people don’t understand is that the United States Supreme Court spends precious little of its time with such hot-button topics. They hear cases involving torts (civil lawsuits asking for money), criminal law, civil procedure, tax questions—anything any lower court can hear. A case usually gets to the Supreme Court when various lower courts disagree over a point of law. The Supreme Court can decide which—if either—lower court is correct.

Justice Ginsburg was good at those less-controversial issues. A case involving water rights came across my desk a few years back. I know nothing about water rights and don’t really want to know much.

But as I began reading it, the opinion was so well reasoned and so well written that I read it all the way to the end. Say what you will about her, she was a brilliant woman who wrote opinions that were in the best tradition of the Supreme Court.

Did I always agree with her? No. Not at all. To tell you which side of most hot-button issues I am on, Justice Antonin Scalia was my favorite justice. But in a time when disagreements lead to social unrest, those two warriors, as opposite politically as they could be, were the best of friends.

I joined him in having great respect for her

Rest in peace, Justice Ginsburg.