WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER
We mourn Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Born in Brooklyn in 1933, she taught at both Rutgers and Columbia, and became Columbia’s first tenured female professor. She was director of the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU during the 1970s, and argued six important cases on gender equality before the Supreme Court, winning five of them.
President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 1980, and Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Her intelligence, intensity and persistence remain an inspiration to millions of women here and around the world, and to all who believe in gender equality. She will be rightfully honored and remembered not only for all the doors she opened for women, but also for her gender-blind positions on all law. Initially regarded as a moderate to liberal justice, she became a liberal bulwark as the court moved to the right.
Ginsburg brought a substantive legal mind to and was a force on the court. She is perhaps best remembered for her dissenting opinion in the case of Bush v. Gore, which decided the 2000 presidential election. Disagreeing with the court’s majority opinion in favor of Bush, Ginsburg concluded her objection with “I dissent,” a not-so-subtle and cutting departure from the traditional “I respectfully dissent.”
Her celebrity most likely began then. She became a celebrity in many parts of our world, from law schools to SNL skits. She enjoyed unprecedented publicity for any justice of the Supreme Court. Even locally, Ginsburg’s love for opera and her talks at the Glimmerglass Festival made her a celebrity in Otsego County.
Having said that, I want to consider the idea of celebrity. Supreme Court justices are seldom celebrities, though many are considered illustrious, from Warren to Douglas to Scalia – and often regardless of their politics. Yet in my 71 years no Supreme Court justice attained the level of celebrity and fandom as did Ginsburg. Douglas came close, and he was revered by many for his 36 years on the bench. Yet in 1975 he retired at age 77.
Ginsburg did not retire when Obama was president, even though she was into her ’80s and had been through several bouts of cancer. When the suggestion that she might retire was raised, she asked the question: ”Who do you think that the President could nominate that could get through the Republican Senate? Who would you prefer on the court rather than me?” Since the President appoints, not the Senate, he could have gotten a nominee through, even with compromises. If Ginsburg had retired at 80 Obama would have had four years to replace her.
Even for the best of us, celebrity and fame comes with the lure of hubris.
Today we face an almost certain third Trump nominee, setting the stage on the court for another 20 years. Any non-celebrity, moderate judge that Obama might have appointed would have been preferable to this situation. Ginsburg did us no favor by staying on, regardless of all the love for her and her resultant celebrity.
The media-driven fame game is part of what is rotting our nation and society. It needs to be corralled. Public servants should do their duty and then go, opening the way for others. The Congress, Presidency, Vice Presidency, and the Supreme Court offer a grand total of 546 seats. In a nation of 330,000,000 we can certainly find other intelligent, capable, and – yes – persistent people to fill those seats. Even on the U.S. Supreme Court.