"You Can't Spell Truth Without Ruth" – Remembering RBG

Advocate Amit A Pai

20 Sep 2020 4:03 AM GMT

  • You Cant Spell Truth Without Ruth – Remembering RBG

    As I woke up this morning, I learnt of the passing of the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the ripe age of 87. When I first heard of the Justice back in law school, I wondered what the fuss was all about – after all, she was just another Judge of the American top court. Curiosity made me read about her and watch her speak on YouTube – only then did I learn that she was a giant and...

    As I woke up this morning, I learnt of the passing of the iconic Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the ripe age of 87. When I first heard of the Justice back in law school, I wondered what the fuss was all about – after all, she was just another Judge of the American top court. Curiosity made me read about her and watch her speak on YouTube – only then did I learn that she was a giant and an inspiration, which perhaps was the reason for her Rockstar image.

    Born in a 1933 in a Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth Bader, she was not brought up in great luxury. Two days before her high school graduation, where she finished top of the class, she lost her mother Celia to cancer. She went to the prestigious Cornell for College on scholarship, and that is where she met her partner for life, Marty Ginsburg. Soon after graduation from Cornell, Ruth and Marty got married till death did them apart in 2010. When she joined the prestigious Harvard University, she was one of only nine women students, and the then dean invited the nine to a dinner, where he asked them to justify why they deserved the seat which could have been occupied by a man! Soon, she proved her mettle, and became the first woman on the Harvard Law Review. Amazingly, Ruth not only had a child, but she had to tender to her husband. Marty, who also was studying at Harvard at the time, was diagnosed with cancer. So, Ruth, would not only attend to her classes and her work, but also would type out notes for Marty borrowed from his classmates, who was recuperating, apart from taking care of their child. When Marty moved to New York, she moved with him, to complete her law from Columbia.

    Though she graduated top of her class, as was her habit, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had no job, for women in the 1959 were not welcome to law firms. In fact, after being selected to clerk with Justice Felix Frankfurter, she was unceremoniously dropped when the Justice got to know that she had a couple of kids and an ailing husband. Her sex and motherhood were the obstacle. "To be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot was a bit much"[1] in 1959 she has remarked. She finally briefly worked with a Judge as law clerk, and then as a law professor. She then associated herself with the ACLU and NAACP, and began working on civil rights cases. She was one of the leading voices of feminist jurisprudence, and was a specialist in sex discrimination cases. Her moment came, when Marty, a tax attorney, urged her to take up a case which was a challenge to an Internal Revenue Code was discriminatory, as the tax deduction for the cost of a caregiver to his mother was not available to single working men, as juxtaposed to single working women. This, Ruth argued before the Appeals Court, was solely on the basis of sex. And she succeeded. She wrote several briefs for matters relating to gender discrimination, and she appeared in several cases before the Supreme Court. It is no secret that she has been an advocate against gender discrimination, and has been instrumental in the manner in which the Supreme Court has decided these cases. She said, she had spent ten years of her life litigating cases, "I don't say women's rights – I say the constitutional principle of equal citizenship stature of men and women."[2] A terrible cook by her own confession, she was banished from the kitchen by Marty and her two children, and left to deal with the law.

    In 1980, President Carter nominated her to the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeal, informally considered the stepping stone to the Supreme Court. She served there for 14 years, till President Clinton nominated her to fill in the vacancy of Justice Byron White, who retired after a stint of just over three decades. Not surprisingly, Marty played a pivotal role in her appointment to the top Court. Although on his shortlist, President Clinton was not keen on appointing Judge Ginsburg, he agreed to interview with her. And after the interview, President Clinton was sure that he had found his nominee. She appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in her opening credited Marty thus:

    "I have had the great fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age eighteen when we met, and who believes today, that a woman's work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man's. I attended law school in days when women were not wanted by most members of the legal profession. I became a lawyer because Marty and his parents supported that choice unreservedly."[3]

    Before the Judiciary Committee, Judge Ginsburg did something several nominees have skirted over the years. She openly spoke on abortion, and said it was central to a woman's life and dignity, and that it was a decision that she must make herself. She was confirmed by the Senate 97:3, and became the second woman to be appointed to the Bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. Unlike our Supreme Court, Justices of the American Supreme Court are appointed for life, and therefore the impact of a Justice's tenure is much more. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg served for 26 years, from 1994, till she passed away. And a reading of her many judgments, and dissents speak for themselves as a measure of her impact as an unabashed liberal.

    Her friendship with the conservative giant, Justice Antonin Scalia, is a classic example of how professional and personal views are compartmentalized. For every view she held, Justice Scalia held an exact opposite view. Having served with him on the DC Circuit, it is not secret that Justice Scalia also recommended her name to President Clinton, when asked. She enjoyed the opera, and even participated in them with Justice Scalia.

    On the Court, she, along with Justice Sandra Day O'Conner carved out a place for women on the Court, which until the appointment of Justice O'Conner in 1981, had been an all men. At an event, when asked how many women Judges would the Supreme Court need to have, for it to be enough, she said "Nine" without batting an eyelid. Justice Ginsburg was also famous for her collars – a different one for each occasion, including one she wore when dissenting. After the death of her beloved husband Marty in 2010, the man behind this very successful woman, she continued to serve the Court with distinction. She followed a very strict workout routine even at a very advanced age. And she had a terrific sense of humour. When she was seen on camera nodding off during the State of the Union Address, she confessed to having had one too many glasses of wine at dinner. When asked of when she would retire, she said she still had it in her to go on and would cite the example of the liberal Justice Stevens who had set a precedent of retiring at 90. She became an icon, and was famously called the "Notorious RBG". Her fans even said "There is no truth without Ruth". This despite fighting off cancer thrice over, in 1999, 2009 and 2018, before succumbing to it yesterday.

    What I have written here is a little part of her phenomenal life. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been a giant in a small frame, and has been an inspiration to many, including someone like me all the way on the other side of the World. I have deliberately not ventured into her opinions and take on the law – for those are reflective of Justice Ginsburg – the Judge. This piece was primarily a tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg – the student, mother, wife, lawyer, Appeals Court Judge and finally Supreme Court Justice. She is not just an icon for women's rights, but an iconic figure for all those students of law – lawyers, academics and Judges alike. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to be remembered as "someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has…" I don't see any other way of remembering her legacy. RIP RBG.

    Views are personal only.

    [1] Jane Sherron De Hart, Ruth Bader Ginsburg – A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018, page 79

    [2] Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik, Notorious RBG – The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harper Collins Publishers, 2015, Page 43

    [3] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, My Own Words, Simon & Schuster, 2016 Ed. at Page 182.

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