On Sept. 18, the country was briefly united in mourning the loss of the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Despite the politicization of her former office, many came together to honor her legacy. In a rare moment of concurrence, the Justice united even President Trump and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who referred to her as a “titan” and “giant” respectively in their eulogic statements.
In the wake of eulogic articles remembering Ginsburg’s legacy of 27 years in the Supreme Court, I was surprised to learn of her friendship with late Justice Antonin Scalia, bridging a similarly large political gap. This was more than just a cordial or professional relationship. In a roast for her 10th anniversary on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Scalia concluded by saying, “I have missed Ruth very much since leaving the court of appeals. She was the best of colleagues, as she is the best of friends.”
Ginsburg and Scalia made no secret of their disagreements, but did so cordially. Quoting Scalia himself, Ginsburg explained their relationship: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas.”
As the country considered the impact of Justice Ginsburg’s death, the question of her replacement quickly overshadowed her passing, as the public discourse around her death was framed by the political leanings of her replacement. Many comments on her death were in relation to the potential change in the Supreme Court.
The right disparaged her legacy with comments and memes mocking her as “in hell” for her role in pro-choice policy. Her cult following on the left, many newly minted following the biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” lamented her passing for fear of a more conservative replacement. This fear is a nominal but unsubstantial remembrance of the legacy of the Justice.
While I do not mean to imply that Ginsburg was above politics (she wasn’t), I would suggest that her shared sentiment with Scalia on the method of discourse is necessary to our current moment.
Scalia and Ginsburg by no means concurred on legal, moral or political matters. However, sharing any space, whether on a court or in a country, necessitates a fundamental respect for others, often in spite of differences.
When evaluating Ginsburg’s legacy, it is necessary to remember the importance of plurality in our society and government. For instance, while her campaign against gender discrimination may have been decried as radical, this campaign led her to contribute to protecting many fundamental rights for men and women that are now taken for granted.
These rights included requiring state-funded higher education to admit women (U.S. v. Virginia, 1996), allowing women to obtain credit cards and mortgages without a male cosigner (Equal Credit Opportunity Act, 1974), defending pregnant women’s right to work (Struck v. Secretary of Defense 1972), extending military spouse benefits (Frontiero v. Richardson, 1973) and social security widower benefits to men (Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 1975).
Her most attacked opinions were her pro-choice views on abortion. Although she staunchly defended her views, her record still has positive notes through a pro-life lens.
For example, Air Force Captain Susan Struck, of Struck v. Secretary of Defense, 1974, was a Catholic nurse who became pregnant. She was transferred to a base in Washington (the only state where abortion was legal at the time) where she intended to put her baby up for adoption, but a disposition board gave her the choice of leaving the military or having an abortion on base.
Struck decided to sue the Department of Defense and was sent representation from the American Civil Liberties Union: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Consistent with her values, Ginsburg defended a woman’s autonomy, which in this case meant her choice to carry her child to term.
These successes are emblematic of the good that can come from plurality. Disagreeing with her in spite of her ideals is not a call to disrespect her legacy, but a call to bring about further successes that her ideals did not reach.
Remembering her legacy is about building on the successes of the past by working with others, especially in disagreement. In the words of Ginsburg, “fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”