By Stepan Sarkisian and Christina Campodonico
As the nation mourns the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Hammer Museum in Westwood held a special virtual forum on Thursday, Sept. 24, to discuss her legacy and the Supreme Court’s future.
The late Justice Ginsburg, born in 1933, was a champion of gender rights and a cultural icon for millions. Before being appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, Ginsberg faced countless adversities throughout her law career as a woman and a mother and was instrumental in overturning a number of targeted gender laws and discriminatory institutions.
Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson moderated the panel, which featured former California Senator Barbara Boxer, Pulitzer Prize-winning Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse, and senior opinion writer at the Boston Globe and MSNBC contributor Kimberly Atkins.
“[What] she wanted to show the court was that sex equality isn’t going to favor one or the other, it’s gonna wipe away these built-in assumptions about the roles that society has assigned to men or to women,” said Greenhouse while speaking of Ginsberg’s legal work, adding that “this panel tonight are all her beneficiaries.”
As each member shared personal experiences and anecdotes of the late Justice Ginsburg, audience members were reminded that behind the larger than life presence of the “Notorious RBG,” as she became known in later years, was a humble, small, soft-spoken woman, who despite the illnesses she suffered, was a relentless champion for women.
“What made her powerful is she suffered the slings and arrows of discrimination,” said former Senator Boxer, who recalled meeting Justice Ginsburg soon after her nomination to the Supreme Court — “I’m five feet tall, and she’s five feet tall. So first of all, I loved her because we could look eye-to-eye.” — and Ginsburg’s multiple, valiant fights against cancer.
“I remember being shocked that she was on the bench at work just days after she lost her husband,” recalled Atkins, who was WBUR Boston’s Washington correspondent and D.C. bureau chief of Dolan Company newspapers before joining the Globe. “She was on the bench at work after the first cancer diagnosis after the second cancer diagnosis after the third cancer diagnosis while she was going through chemotherapy. … She’s showing reporters her workout on camera. I mean, it was that sort of spirit, that sort of show that ‘she can do anything’ that was a part of what she was writing about in her decisions. And… often her dissents, about equality about… what feminism looks like, what a working woman looks like.”
The panelists also discussed how Justice Ginsburg’s perseverance to remain on the court as long as she was able, despite health issues and partisan pressure, was an extension of her feminism and should not be seen as a blow to those who saw her as a protector of liberal ideologies on the bench, especially in her later years.
“People are talking about, you know, why didn’t she retire? Why are we in this situation? And I pushed back against that,” said Greenhouse. “I pushed back against it when a kind of a male cabal of law professors rather early in the Obama years said that Ruth Ginsburg should retire. And, frankly, I thought that was a sexist deal. You know, ‘You little lady, it’s your responsibility to give up the job you love and at which you’re pretty darn good and take a bullet for our side and leave.’ You know, the notion that the political death spiral that our country seems to be in right this minute should be laid at the feet of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it’s a little bit out of context, I think.”
While Ginsburg’s decision to persevere led to another decade as a Supreme Court Justice, the timing of her death gives an opportunity for President Trump to shift the court’s makeup to a 6-3 conservative majority with the appointment of judge Amy Coney Barrett. (Barrett’s confirmation hearing is scheduled to start on Oct. 12.)
The loss of Justice Ginsberg and the consequence of a potential conservative majority may lead to a regression in gender rights as the court would have the power to overturn Roe v. Wade. With the rights of so many women dependent on the presence of Justice Ginsberg on the court, it calls into question the legitimacy of the Supreme Court and its nomination process.
“The ideology of the sitting justices, for the first time in modern American history, maps completely on to the partisan identification of the president who appointed them,” said Boxer, adding that a positive public perception of the Supreme Court will be difficult to maintain if the highly politicized and partisan nature of the confirmation process continues.
As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell moves to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat, opposition has labeled his actions as hypocritical considering his decision to block the pre-election Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland four years ago during the Obama administration. In defense of his decision, Senator McConnell claims the two situations are completely different as the GOP (the same party as the president) now controls the Senate.
“…there were no caveats. They said in an election year. That’s it. …So, they can twist themselves into pretzels to try and rationalize this. But it’s a bald-faced, double-dealing, hypocritical move. And if I was still in the Senate, I would not be allowed to say those words.” said Boxer in response to the legitimacy of his claim.
Despite the prospect of a conservative majority on the court and the threat of overturning Roe v. Wade, the mood of the panel was far from doom and gloom as they discussed potential areas of change on and outside of the Supreme Court, including court packing, judicial term limits and legislative strategies.
“The solution for those who want to preserve reproductive rights lie elsewhere, lies in Congress, it certainly lies in statehouses. I mean, there are states for which the laws will not change, because there are strong laws within those states that support those rights, and it will become a state’s issue,” said Atkins.
The underlying theme of each of the panelists’ answers pointed to the importance of individual participation in the democratic process.
When asked of the best way to honor Justice Ginsburg’s memory, the panelists said it is up to those who follow in her footsteps to fight for the values she upheld by engaging in politics, social movements and voting.
“Look at the year we’ve been having in the United States in 2020 and the reckoning about racial justice that’s come about in these months,” said Greenhouse. “What she [Ginsburg] was standing for was the dignity of all people, regardless of gender. And what this great reckoning moment has told us this year is nothing’s more important in society, in a democratic society, than to recognize the dignity of all people, regardless of all the aspects that seem to make us different on the surface, one to the other, whether it’s race or ethnicity, or gender. … I think we have to keep our eyes on that ball. We have to raise our children to take this seriously and to be active members of the democratic polity.”
“I think the importance of voting, whether it’s a special election for local school board or whether it’s the presidential election, casting a vote in every single election is crucially important for a number of reasons, including for all the reasons that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg laid out,” said Atkins.
“It’s good for everybody,” said Boxer of voting, “whoever you love, whatever you look like, whatever your background, whatever your zip code. And we need to stand up to that fight. We have to now, and it means doing more than you thought you’d have to do, not just sitting around and thinking about it, but saying something about it, doing something about it…”
While the future of the Supreme Court and the country remains uncertain, the panel reminded — undoubtedly — that the loss and impact of the one tirelessly devoted “Notorious RBG” will not be soon forgotten.
Visit the Hammer Museum’s YouTube page at https://tinyurl.com/rbgathammer to watch the talk in full.