Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away last Friday, Sept. 18, from metastatic pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. Ginsburg was the second woman to join the court and a key member of the court’s liberal wing.
“Even those students who might not have agreed with her position on the issue saw her as a role model and someone who they might emulate,” said Brian Harward, professor and Robert G. Seddig Chair in political science.
Prior to joining the Supreme Court, Ginsburg worked with the American Civil Liberties Union, working on cases against gender discrimination. In 1980, she was appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the United States Supreme Court, filling the seat left open by the retirement of Associate Justice Byron White.
“Once she was appointed she was certainly one of, if not the most important voice for expanding our understanding of equal rights at least since Thurgood Marshall,” Harward said. “Not just in gender discrimination but in terms of expanding our understanding of equal justice to include people with disabilities, immigrants, workers, minorities. She was in many different cases integral to our expanding understanding of equal justice before the law.”
Despite her strong stance in favor of equal rights, Ginsburg’s methodology was far from earth-shattering, according to Harward
“One of the reasons I think people ought to pay attention to Ginsburg’s legal writing is (that) it’s a window into an approach to constitutional interpretation and the power of the judiciary that we ought to be mindful of,” Harward said. “She wasn’t about, as one scholar called it, ‘earthquakes’ in the law, she was about ‘nudging’ the law.”
For some, Ginsburg — and her passing — represented more than a 27-year career on the bench of the highest court in the United States.
“When Justice Kennedy retired, that was sad, because we knew Trump was going to pick another nominee.” said Ryan Valerio, ’22, president of the Allegheny College Democrats. “This is different, because people know Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and she’s basically a feminist icon, so it was sad in a different way. It wasn’t sad because we knew Trump was going to replace her with someone conservative. It was sad because of who she was and what she stood for. “
Though an icon for many on the left of the political spectrum, Ginsburg was respected across the spectrum for her courtesy and politeness. The Allegheny College Republicans wrote in a statement released Friday on Instagram that, “Justice Ginsburg left an indelible legacy of inspiration and intellect. Known for her powerful and fervent dissents, Justice Ginsburg nevertheless displayed civility throughout her whole career.”
Ginsburg was well-known for her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she was awarded the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life.
“Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia won this year because, while they were on opposite sides of the spectrum politically, they were still able to be friends outside of the court,” said Royse Bachtel, ’18, a member of the Center of Political Participation when the award was given in 2017. “It’s important to recognize others who are respectful and talk to those with opposing views in a cordial way.”
This civility is something Harward sees as a great message in an age of polarization and partisan divide.
“There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from Justice Ginsburg and one of them is her capacity for understanding that others with whom she might disagree had equal worth and value,” Harward said. “Though she was insistent on principle and insistent on integrity with respect to her personal life (and) legal life, that didn’t mean that she couldn’t learn from others and that she couldn’t enjoy others.”
Ginsburg’s passing and departure from the court comes a month and a half before the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 3, leading many to draw comparisons to the passing of Antonin Scalia and the subsequent political fight over his replacement. President Barack Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the seat in March 2016, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to consider the nomination, arguing that since the vacancy had occurred during an election year, voters should be able to have a voice in the selection of Scalia’s replacement. Four years later, McConnell has vowed to replace Ginsburg before voters go to the polls. Despite the politically charged environment, Professor Harward doesn’t see this as a deciding factor in the upcoming election.
“I think it certainly becomes another major issue that campaigns will certainly be reminding voters about, but we’re pretty locked in… in fact we’re already voting,” Harward said. “So I think most voters have already made their decisions.”
As of Tuesday, Sept. 22, 53 Republican Senators have now committed to considering Ginsburg’s replacement on the floor of the Senate, meaning that McConnell now has the votes to bring Trump’s nominee to the floor of the Senate for consideration. While this does not guarantee that said nominee will be confirmed, it does pave the way for the vacant seat to be filled.
Though this is a national conversation, it is still one that Allegheny students can participate in by reaching out to their representatives in Washington.
“Whichever way (students) feel compelled to take action, I think contacting their Senate delegation would be important,” Harward said. “If they feel that this is something that ought not be decided prior to the election or the inauguration of a new president, or the inauguration for a second term of the current president, they ought to make that feeling known to their Senate delegation.”
Students can also attend the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Quigley Town Hall on Friday, Sept. 25, which will start at 12:40 p.m. and will be held in the Quigley Auditorium. A link will also be available through myAllegheny for community members to participate remotely.