“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
There are few people known for their whole name – first, middle and last.
Even fewer known just for their initials.
And maybe no other white, Jewish, woman in history to be christened with an honorific reminiscent of martyred rap royalty.
But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was all that and more.
The Notorious R.B.G.
Let it never be said that she was given that title out of public relations or pique.
No matter where you stood, she earned the designation “notorious.” Because she WAS. In nearly everything she did.
Whether it was issuing the dissenting opinion on Bush v. Gore or lifting weights in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “SUPER DIVA,” she was in your face and indomitable.
She was an icon, a pioneer, a living piece of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” as Tennyson might say.
And though she made her most indelible mark as a Supreme Court Justice, in a 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, she said she felt like a teacher:
“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”
She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”
To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.
We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.
But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.
She was there. STILL there. For all of us.
Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.
And now she’s gone.
It’s hard to fathom.
This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.
And it is here. Now. Today.
I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.
But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.
Or could she?
Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.
There’s no way to know for sure.
But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.
She stood for justice when no one else would.
That’s what she did!
In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!
In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”
Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.
There’s a lesson here for all of us.
In the presence of injustice, it is the only proper response.
When refugee children are being locked away in cages at the border, there is no other viable response than dissent.
When police are being militarized and used as thugs to violently put down largely nonviolent protests, there is no appropriate response other than dissent.
When the President is lying to us, flouting our laws, and Congress refuses to hold him accountable, there is no other response than dissent.
We must all have the courage of the Notorious R.B.G. to stand up against injustice and call it by its true name – even to its face.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will somehow be enough to dismantle that injustice.
But we have to try.
And even if we don’t succeed today, we will have saved ourselves from becoming a part of the injustice around us.
Just days before her death, Ginsberg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera:
“My most fervent wish is, that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
If Republicans retreat from their own precedent and push through a new justice 47 days or less before the election, there are still things we can do.
And when we win, we increase the number of justices in the Supreme Court and pack them full of progressives.
We undo all the chicanery Republicans have done for decades – end the filibuster, make Puerto Rico and DC states, end gerrymandering and pass a new Voting Rights Act that actually protects the most important principle of our system of government – the one without which our system is nominal at best.
This and more is the dissent we must wage.
They give us injustice, we respond with its opposite.
We must look this fetid, decaying nation in the eye and say with all the ferociousness of our fallen Supreme Court Justice:
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