A woman for all seasons: remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg

In an early episode of the American cartoon sitcom Family Guy, the central characters are in their sitting room experiencing a case of spontaneous speech synchronization – they keep saying the same things at the same time. The sketch ends with them all spontaneously saying the name of the same person: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg”.

The joke worked because Justice Ginsburg was someone who everyone knew, but rarely talked about. Like any good lawyer and judge, her late career was marked by a fight for fairness, equanimity, and rapport – values hard to come by in an age of increasing political polarization. Her friendships, such as with Chief Justice Roberts and the recently deceased conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, set a tone of collegiality for the court, even when they were most divided.

My partner is a lawyer, and (not uncoincidentally) an extremely principled person with a thirst for justice. It is sometimes difficult, in the legal discipline, to square that circle. Lawyers themselves often see lawyering as a necessary evil, a symptom of the broken world that they are trying to heal. Thomas More, himself a lawyer and judge, imagined in his Utopia that “There are no lawyers, because no one wishes to conceal anything”.

But like Thomas, Justice Ginsberg sustained high and often uncompromising principle. Before she was a judge, she was a feminist, and she was never not a feminist. Perhaps more a suffragette than a suffragist, some may think it tactically unwise to have a dogged voice like hers as the second woman on the Supreme Court. Once asked when there would be “enough” women on the Supreme Court, she replied, without a hint of irony, “When there are nine”.

She was also an intersectionalist, creatively applying the principles of women’s rights to lift up racial and ethnic minorities, workers, and, most recently, transgender people. It was a creativity not born from an effort to be politically correct, but from a holistic and thorough understanding of the world around her. The law, to her, was not fundamentally the product of tradition, but the product of sound reasoning. Indeed, her strongest opinions seemed to be when precedent was absent. In many ways this made her an ideal Supreme Court Justice; the US Supreme Court, in her tenure, became less of a crucible and more of a laboratory, one in which she was often the lead researcher.

The gulf left by Justice Ginsberg’s loss will be felt at all levels of American society, even for her strongest detractors. In the next three months – or more – a lot of political crossfire will ensue, into which Ginsberg’s own voice, as a dying wish, offers the first shot: “[I wish to] not be replaced until a new president is installed”. There is a myth that judges are not replaced quickly in the last year of a presidential term, a myth most notably invoked by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell when he blocked an Obama appointment in the last year of that presidency. But the Senate majority is slim, and it will only take four Republican senators to ensure the appointment remains unfilled until next year.

It is, of course, more socially accepted to be politically neutral when mourning a death. But if there’s anything “RBG” taught me, it’s that the strongly political and scrupulously polite are not exclusive. I welcome any opportunity to increase respect and charity in our political discourse. But let’s not compromise on justice.

* Em Dean is a British / American dual citizen and a former politics reporter who covered the 2008 Presidential Election on the ground in the Midwest US. They are a member of Harrow Liberal Democrats.

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