Putting aside questions of hypocrisy, fair play and unbridled aggravation of political and societal polarization that threatens the very institutions preventing further slide into anarchy, Americans should pause a few moments to consider the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87. Such respect should consider not only the decisions and dissents she wrote during 27 years on the nation’s highest court but her lifelong work as a legal advocate for the simple but absurdly elusive notion that basic human rights are due not just to some U.S. citizens but to all.
Consider her stirring dissent in the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act approved by Congress and signed into law in 1965. The conservative majority ruled that a “pre-clearance remedy” section of the law that allowed the federal government to scrutinize every single change to election law in states with a history of racially motivated voter suppression should no longer stand on the grounds that such “racial disparity” no longer dominates America — an absolutely astounding, ivory-tower argument. Ginsburg’s dissent, while acknowledging a decrease in some systemic racism in election laws, correctly insisted one reason for this decline was precisely because the Voting Rights Act proved such a powerful force for good, something this newspaper has repeatedly stressed since this regressive court ruling. To quote Ginsburg in her usual witty fashion, “Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
One must also salute her work as a legal advocate, even before she was appointed to the high court by President Bill Clinton (and confirmed 93-3 by the Senate, which in those days recognized judicial merit more than one’s politics). Her success as a crusader for women’s rights came partially through her cleverly flipping the usual equation on its head and pressing cases where men ended up victimized by sexism in the system. Consider her brilliant work as an attorney before the high court in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), where the principal breadwinner in a family was a woman who died in childbirth, leaving her husband unable to procure Social Security benefits for both himself and his son. Ginsburg’s legal ingenuity did the trick: The all-male Supreme Court ruled unanimously in her favor, stressing that the government had violated the right to equal protection secured by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
As we noted upon the death of arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, there’s tremendous value in interpreting constitutional text with a mind for what the Framers intended; at the same time, it’s critical we have jurists and attorneys such as Scalia’s good friend, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to ensure the rights, benefits and joys outlined in our founding documents aren’t reserved solely for white men.
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