CNN Films’ “RBG” chronicles the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Watch tonight at 10 p.m. ET.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Friday night as Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, started. Commentators weigh in on the importance of her life and work – and the implications of her passing. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinion at CNN.
Elliot Williams: There is poetry in her final moment falling on one of the holiest days her faith recognizes
It is nothing short of poetic that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Rosh Hashanah.
It is far above my, or anyone else’s, pay grade to try to divine greater meanings about death. However, we will all die. And there is something beautiful about the fact that an irreplaceable American jurist’s final moment fell on one of the holiest days her faith recognizes.
She deserved nothing less. By any measure, she was a trailblazer, a beloved colleague, a matchless legal mind. Perhaps it’s fitting for a superlative life to end on a day that many people see as superlative itself.
Notably, the central prayer of Rosh Hashanah is that “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur (which follows 10 days later) it is sealed” what individuals’ fates will be for the next year. That, too, is oddly prophetic for the moment we face right now.
The decisions our leaders – particularly President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans – will make over the next several days are far bigger than whether and how one individual might fill one vacancy on the court. They will come down to whether the people who have been entrusted with our government have a shred of the dignity and honesty that our great country – and Justice Ginsburg’s legacy – deserves.
It doesn’t look good. Within hours of Justice Ginsburg’s passing, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell issued a statement vowing to bring a Trump nominee for the seat to a vote. After his role in blocking President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia on the court in 2016, McConnell’s mental gymnastics in justifying his decision would be laughable if their implications weren’t so tragic. Likewise, we will be owed an explanation from any Senator who supported the decision to block Garland’s nomination in 2016, but is willing to proceed today. Their inevitable dishonesty will set the tone for the months to come.
The next days will also be an opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate – finally – to the American people that federal courts matter to them. I have written in this forum and otherwise argued that Democrats have historically not been as animated about the courts as Republicans are. However, a recent Fox News poll shows that voters now trust Joe Biden more than they trust President Trump on nominations, by a sizeable margin. Public opinion over what will surely be a brutal Supreme Court fight will be shaped over the next several days; now is Democrats’ chance to take control of it.
Justice Ginsburg was a principled defender of justice for all. While she fought against the power structure, she always had faith in our underlying systems. Systems that rely on the honesty and integrity of the people behind them. The next several days will put that faith – and the people charged with upholding it – to the test.
Elliot Williams (@elliotcwilliams) is a CNN legal analyst. He is the host of the “Made to Fail” podcast, which debuts on August 17, and a principal at The Raben Group, a national public affairs and strategic communications firm.
Frida Ghitis: Grant Ruth Bader Ginsburg her dying wish
There’s no woman in the United States whose life, career and security was not bolstered by the work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We are all in her debt. That’s true for all of us, young and old, Democrat or Republican. We should keep that in mind as we consider her dying wish. As the end of her life approached, Ginsburg dictated to her granddaughter a message for us:
“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
Ginsburg’s life is a heroic story of perseverance, brilliance and dedication. The indignities she endured because she was a woman seem unthinkable to us today, and that’s only because she was so successful in fighting against them.
As a student at Harvard Law School, she helped her ailing husband obtain his degree, carrying much of his load as he was treated for testicular cancer, while carrying on with her own studies and watching over their baby.
When he got a job in New York, she left Harvard for the sake of his career and transferred to Columbia Law School, where she tied for first in her class. Despite her sterling credentials, none of the top law firms would hire her. “I was Jewish, a woman, and a mother. The first raised one eyebrow; the second, two; the third made me indubitably inadmissible,” she later said.
She managed to get a clerkship, and when Rutgers University offered her a job, they informed her she would be paid less that her male colleagues because her husband was already getting a good salary, her colleague Justice Elena Kagan once recounted to The New York Times.
Ginsburg had plenty of experience with sex discrimination when she devised the brilliant strategy that would propel her career and change all of our lives. Instead of directly arguing for the rights of women, she would show the courts that sex discrimination was also harmful to men. She represented a single man who was denied a tax deduction for taking care of his mother, who was his dependent, because the law expected caretakers to be women. It was a landmark sex discrimination case. Many more would come.
Ginsburg went on to join the American Civil Liberties Union and before long she was in court repeatedly challenging entrenched stereotypes, dismantling a system that made it possible to deny fair salaries and opportunities to women. She turned the 14th Amendment, the equal protection promise of the Constitution, into a tool for improving the lives of women. She convinced the courts that women should be “regarded as persons in equal stature to men.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s work changed the world for everyone – not just women. In her chambers at the Supreme Court, she hung art inscribed with the biblical words from Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” And justice, justice she pursued. For everyone.
But it is women especially whose lives today would not be the same without her. Women such as today’s sitting Republican senators Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joni Ernst, Martha McSally, and others, whose careers were made possible by Ginsburg, and who now have in their power to grant her that dying wish by blocking their party’s leadership from ramming through her replacement.
Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. Follow her on Twitter @fridaghitis.
Anne Milgram: The law was a powerful tool in her hands
Tonight, all across our country, Americans mourn the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her death will be felt particularly hard by women and young girls, many of whom know the story of how Ginsburg shifted the male-dominated arc of the law in favor of gender equality for women.
Put simply, it is because of Ginsburg’s work as a lawyer and advocate that today we take as a given that it is unlawful to treat a woman differently from a man because of her gender.
While it seems obvious today, nothing could have been further from the truth in the early 1970s when Ginsburg began litigating sex discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. Before this time, laws routinely provided benefits to men that were denied to women.
For example, in 1971 Ginsburg argued the case of Reed v. Reed before the Supreme Court, challenging a legal system that endorsed the view that women belonged in the home while men belonged at work. Ginsburg’s client, a mother, had her request to be the executor of her son’s estate denied because of an Oregon law that stated: “As between persons equally entitled to administer a decedent’s estate, males must be preferred to females.”
Ginsburg argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Although the 14th Amendment guarantees the “equal protection of the laws,” no one had ever argued that laws like Oregon’s violated the Constitution.
That is, no one until Ginsburg.
A unanimous Supreme Court agreed with her argument, finding that the Oregon law discriminated against women and violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. This marked a profound step forward for women’s rights. Through additional cases that Ginsburg went on to litigate, she convinced the Supreme Court to change the way it looked at gender discrimination, moving from a low level of scrutiny for laws that permitted discrimination to an intermediate level. Under this higher standard of review, the court struck down many other laws, which had sanctioned the unequal treatment of women.
Ginsburg was only the second woman appointed to our nation’s highest court when she was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993. She blazed a trail not only as a litigator but also as a long-serving Supreme Court Justice. In Justice Ginsburg’s hands, the law was a powerful tool that she used to carve a better, more just society for women.
Through her extraordinary life and work, she brought our nation one step closer to the ideal of equality for all. For that, we should all be deeply grateful.
Anne Milgram, a CNN legal analyst, is a distinguished scholar in residence at New York University’s School of Law. She served as federal prosecutor and was attorney general of New Jersey from 2007 to 2010.
Laura Coates: The challenge now is in how to replace an icon
If you cared about gender equality, equal pay, same-sex marriage, reproductive rights, disability rights, electoral disenfranchisement or any of the other ideals that America professes to hold high, then you cared about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She was nothing less than an icon, constitutionally precise as she was prescient about the weight of the high court’s decisions on future generations. You ran to read her blistering and compelling dissents before you even bothered to peruse the majority holdings, waiting with bated breath to understand how she framed her legal arguments, and then quizzically wondering how anyone could disagree with her eloquent logic.
When she began as a lawyer, sexism was proudly overt and unapologetically celebrated as a norm. Gender equality may have been an oxymoron; still Justice Ginsburg suffered no fools. She feverishly litigated cases that would hold up a mirror to America and beseech her brethren not for favor but for respect.
Following in the footsteps of Justice Thurgood Marshall, she used her own experiences as a victim of bigotry to draft a blueprint for a legal architectural system of equal protection and justice for women under the law. Indeed, she has been aptly referred to as the Thurgood Marshall of Women’s Rights. I now fear the fate of that moniker.
The replacement of Justice Thurgood Marshall by Justice Clarence Thomas, his ideological opposite, was not only a jagged pill for civil rights advocates to swallow, it was based on a disturbing assumption that two diametrically opposed African-American men were somehow and inexplicably interchangeable. It would behoove the nominating administration and the confirming members of the Senate not to confuse form with substance.
When it comes to replacing a Supreme Court justice, to the presidential victor goes the nominating spoils. There is no constitutional requirement that a successor must mirror her predecessor, but the nominating and confirmation process should mirror our pursuit of fairness. There is no precedent that controls, but neither should hyper-partisanship when it comes to filling a seat at the pinnacle of judicial objectivity.
If hypocrisy, defined as an about-face from the spiteful treatment accorded Judge Merrick Garland four years ago, is allowed to takes the reins, democracy should say, in the words of Justice Ginsburg, “I dissent.”
Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant US attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. She is the host of the daily “Laura Coates Show” on SiriusXM. Follow her @thelauracoates.