As the country grieves the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I’m reflecting on the time before she was the Notorious RBG, before the court, before the collars. When she was just Ruth.
She took care of a toddler, and a husband battling cancer, while in law school, opening her books at 2 a.m. to prepare for class. At Rutgers Law School, she hid her second pregnancy so that she wouldn’t lose her job as a professor. She cared for her family while building the legal strategy that would take down gender discrimination in the law. She was a quiet, patient force, and she changed everything for generations of women. So it is fitting, though heartbreaking, that Justice Ginsburg died on Rosh Hashanah, which according to Jewish tradition marks her as a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness.
Over the course of her life, she carried heavy loads on her small frame. In law school, she bore the weight with grace, graduating valedictorian. In her early career, she carried the weight of discrimination, facing rejection after rejection. On the Supreme Court, she carried the weight of the unheard and overlooked on her shoulders. Every single day for 27 years, through battles with cancer and the death of her beloved Marty, she carried us so well.
Now it is our turn. She left us a legacy, and we must carry it forward.
So many of her most blistering opinions were dissents. She knew that while she might not live to see what became of them, her words would make their way into American jurisprudence. The brilliance of the American experiment is that while the majority rules, the rights of the minority are protected — through our Constitution, our laws, and the judicial system. The powerful, in their quest to grow and keep power, cannot trample the vulnerable. Our democracy, while flawed and full of contradictions from the start, was built to become more just over years and centuries. No one understood this as well as Justice Ginsburg. Her dissents are blueprints for the future, when we will, hopefully, make better decisions.
Today, it feels like our country is making all the wrong decisions. More than 200,000 people are dead and millions are struggling to make ends meet because the White House decided their political fortunes were more important than the facts and science of COVID-19. Women are forced to drive across the country during a pandemic to access abortion because certain politicians have decided what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Police are killing black people, and their families are left without hope of justice because this country decided long ago their lives don’t matter. Fire has engulfed the American West because we decided that the exploitation of resources is more important than the Earth we walk and live and breathe on.
I met Justice Ginsburg at Union Theological Seminary, a few weeks before the last abortion case was argued in front of the Supreme Court, just months ago. When asked about the egregious acts of the Trump administration, true to form, she quoted Thomas Jefferson: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” While her loss is a devastating blow, we do have that one comfort: We know exactly what Justice Ginsburg would want us to do right now. Our duty is to resist.
It shouldn’t surprise us that President Donald Trump and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell have already announced that they will move forward to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat “without delay,” before the voters have an opportunity to weigh in, before they even pass COVID relief for Americans. But it shouldn’t surprise those who rise up to fight them. Planned Parenthood’s 16 million supporters, the one in four women who have had an abortion, the millions who rely on Planned Parenthood health centers for care, the LGBTQ+ people erased by the administration, the people of color dying because of the government’s refusal to act. Together, we all rise. For Ruth.
Trump and McConnell think the vacancy left by Justice Ginsburg’s death is a victory for them. They think they’ve already won. But they have us to contend with, and we’re smarter, fiercer and more strategic — because we’ve had to be. The powerful counted us out, just like they did for Ruth. They forced us, over and over, to prove our humanity and our worth. Every black woman knows how that feels. Every immigrant. Every gay couple, every trans or nonbinary person. Every person who is the first or second to break the long record of white, straight, male power in their institution knows what it feels like to have to justify your existence.
She didn’t just justify hers — she justified ours. And she fought like hell for us.
Thank you, Ruth. We’ll take it from here.