At a time when history is caught up in swirling and tumultuous political currents a Supreme Court justice just passed away who influenced much of it.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg a woman of diminutive physical stature, but giant intellect and boundless energy, fierce determination and unshakable conviction, has left the stage at the age of 87 after complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Other serious ailments put her in the hospital several times as she aged but never slowed her down. Her stoicism was legendary as well as her calm nature.
Her life-long goal could be summed up in four words: “Equal Justice Under Law.”
“Our nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” intoned Chief Justice John Roberts.
When the news broke hundreds of Washington, D.C. residents gathered almost instantaneously at the steps of the Court in silent tribute—an extraordinary sight in a town well accustomed to big crowd gatherings. At the Capitol the flag will be flying at half-staff.
More tributes are pouring in from Californians and national leaders of every political stripe:
President Trump appeared genuinely surprised by her death and when told was gracious but sparing in his praise calling her “an amazing woman who led an amazing life.”
Looking very somber, Joe Biden was a bit more expansive saying: “She was not only a giant in her own profession but a beloved figure. She was fierce and unflinching.” He had presided over her nomination hearing.
The Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris, messaged, “Tonight we mourn, we honor and we pray for Justice Ginsburg and her family. But we also recommit to fight for her legacy.”
House GOP Leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) issued the following statement: “Justice Ginsburg was a trailblazer who served the Court and the country faithfully for 27 years.”
“We have lost a giant among us…a trailblazer,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom. “Our hearts ache tonight. Let us honor her memory by preserving the very ideals she fought so tirelessly for. Rest in Power.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement which in part said, “Her passing is an incalculable loss for our democracy.”
Numerous California attorneys have appeared before the firebrand former civil rights lawyer over the years and few came away without the highest admiration for her sharp analytical skills whether they agreed with her positions or not.
She was nominated by President Bill Clinton and confirmed by the Senate 96-3. It is no exaggeration to say that her championship of women’s rights and equal justice has no equivalent in American jurisprudence.
Ginsburg nearly singlehandedly pioneered the end of legal gender discrimination picking up the cudgel handed down by former Justice Thurgood Marshall.
On her passing Clinton said “We have lost one of the most extraordinary justices ever to serve on the Supreme Court. (Her) life and landmark opinions moved us closer to a more perfect union and powerful dissents reminded us that we walk away from our Constitution’s promise at our peril.”
She was only the second woman to serve on the high court (Sandra Day O’Connor preceded her with whom she served for three years) and the first woman of Jewish faith.
Her 17 years on the tribunal as the immovable anchor of its liberal wing is unparalleled. Her opinions both in the majority and in dissent were always taken seriously by all her fellow jurists and she left her personal mark on nearly every aspect of human life.
A legal activist though a moderate in the early stages of her career, over time she gradually became an unapologetic feminist. Her ringing dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company led to the adoption of the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act which has benefitted millions of California and working women nation-wide.
Though the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 preceded her ascension to the Court, her support for women’s reproductive rights was critical. With her death and a steady erosion of its provisions that ruling may now be in jeopardy.
Ginsburg’s closest friend on the bench and with whom she regularly sparred was her ideological opposite, arch conservative, Antonin Scalia—her frequent opera companion who died in 2016.
In her parting words, Ginsburg said, “My most fervent wish is that I shall not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
In 2016, GOP Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell declared, “The voters should pick the president and the president should pick the justice.”
Hours after her death, McConnell took to the air waves saying “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”
The battle lines are already forming over whomever is nominated to succeed her and there will be a no-holds-barred confirmation battle over her replacement if the senate goes ahead with hearings.
The results will be as consequential as the coming presidential election or perhaps more so given that justices serve for life. Another Trump appointment would result in a 6-3 right-leaning court which could change its trajectory for decades to come.
Ginsburg’s death and the aftermath “will now become part of the living debate” says Pulitzer Prize winning historian, John Meacham, in the forty-plus days remaining before a watershed election.
The crusading justice had become iconic long before now. Her reputation was so transcendent that the initials RBG have now entered the standard American lexicon.
No Supreme Court nominee has ever been approved without sufficient hearings and especially so close to a presidential election.
However, the president appears determined to ram one through before the election and has already proposed a list of potential successors. This sets the stage for a bitter fight with a few Republican senators already announcing they will not go along with this timetable.
If four GOP Senators were to bolt, his nomination could fail. It is not clear whether a vote will be called before or after November 3rd. Another element of the calculus surely on the president’s mind is the fact that new Senators do not get sworn in until January 20th when there could be a majority turnover.
Mourning periods never last long in Washington. Incentives for the president to act quickly are abundant. The risk is it could motivate Democrats as well as his own base.