Rabbi Jacob Weinstein once said, “You can’t tell the size of an evergreen until it is cut down.” With the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, American jurisprudence just lost — following the Rabbi Weinstein metaphor — a sequoia.
Justice Ginsburg, agree with her politics or not, was a game changer. Her positions, particularly on gender equality, are now baked into the national experience.
She became a liberal icon, the Notorious RBG, because of the barriers she overcame and opportunities she created for women — but her values cut across political and gender lines.
Some of Ginsburg’s most famous cases involved wronged men. As an ACLU attorney, she successfully argued that widower Stephen Wiesenfeld should receive his deceased wife’s social security benefits: those benefits previously were only applied to widows. “Gender-based discrimination hurts everyone,” she emphasized.
Ginsburg described her judicial philosophy during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1993 when she quoted Jurist Learned Hand: “The spirit of liberty that imbues our constitution must reside first and foremost in the hearts of the men and women who compose this great nation, a community where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest.”
To this, Ginsburg added, “I will keep that wisdom in front of my mind as long as I am capable of judicial service.” Who, on any side of the political equation, could disagree with this credo?
Her specific stances on issues such as abortion provoked heated argument — but her commitment to spirited debate and respect for the Supreme Court were unimpeachable.
Justice Ginsburg was distinguished off the bench as well: she modeled how to deal with those on the other side of the ideological fence. Her “best buddy” on the Court was Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative scholar whose legal philosophy was the polar opposite of Ginsburg’s.
The two attended operas together, they shared family trips, gathered annually for New Year’s Eve dinners, and were soulmate/confidantes.
Ginsburg quoted from the comic opera, Scalia-Ginsburg, to characterize their relationship: “He’s not my enemy, he’s my dear friend. Yes, we are different, but we are one. Different in the way we approach interpretation of legal texts, but one in our reverence for the Constitution.”
For his part, Scalia was equally effusive in his praise for Ginsburg, saying that he attacked “ideas, not people.”
Her comprehensive biographer, Jane Sherron De Hart, theorized that three factors played major roles in Ginsburg’s accomplishments: the formative years with her mother, Celia Bader; her Jewish identity; and the support of her husband, Martin.
Ginsburg, born March 15, 1933, told The Forward she “grew up in the shadow of World War II. And we came to know more and more what was happening to the Jews in Europe. The sense of being an outsider — of being one of the people who had suffered oppression for …no sensible reason…it makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”
Celia Bader, who died from cervical cancer two days before Ruth’s high school graduation, was hugely impactful. “My mother told me to be a lady,” Ginsburg recalled. “And for her that meant to be your own person, fend for yourself.”
Education and reading were central to Celia’s influence. Fridays often meant an “afternoon adventure,” a visit to the local library. According to De Hart, Ginsburg progressed from Nancy Drew to the study of Greek deities — and the reflections of Anne Frank.
One of the most salient lessons Celia taught her daughter was the uselessness of anger and resentment — these emotions waste time and achieve nothing. The future star litigator learned that unkind words impeded her power of persuasion.
Celia’s final guidance came with the behavior she exhibited in the face of devastating illness: determination, bravery and stoicism. Ginsburg later embodied these traits in her own epic health struggles.
Martin Ginsburg, who Ruth married when they were both undergraduates at Cornell, became one of the most notable tax lawyers of his generation: his high profile clients included luminaries such as Ross Perot. Martin put his practice on the backburner once Ruth’s ascendancy began. “I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning,” Martin asserted. “And she has been supportive of me. It’s not a sacrifice, it’s family.”
Chief Justice John Roberts said in his moving eulogy that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was “one of the many versions of the American dream.” Her legacy is that she opened legal doors which will allow millions of others to achieve their dreams.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RIP