Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The words she wrote and the deeds she performed are left behind as a gift to an uncertain future.

I never knew Ruth Bader Ginsburg. My memories come from sitting in the same room with her for hours every month, listening to every word she said, reading everything she wrote, and wondering what was in her mind. What I most remember is the Court’s last session of the 2009-2010 term, when the emboldened conservative majority announced, in an opinion by Samuel Alito, that the Court’s newly expanded “right to keep and bear arms” extended to the states as well.

Ruth Ginsburg did not speak from the bench that day. She joined a dissent by her friend Justice Stephen Breyer and sat at the bench to bear witness.

Her husband Martin Ginsburg had died the day before.

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg had met at Cornell when she was 17. They married after graduation, and Ruth followed Marty Ginsburg to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for his Army service, then gave birth to a daughter and entered Harvard Law School in the class behind his.

When he was stricken with testicular cancer, she took notes in her own classes and his. And when he graduated from Harvard Law and took a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia and finished her law degree there. When she began teaching, it was Marty who brought her an obscure case in which the income-tax law discriminated against a widower because he was male, and convinced her to take it court—a decision he later modestly claimed “got my wife her cool job.” Marty cooked for the family, told jokes at social occasions, nurtured her career, and worked the phones when Bill Clinton had a vacancy on the Supreme Court to fill.

Anyone who knew anything about either of them knew that they formed one of the most powerful and touching love stories of their time. But she was on the job the next day.

That moment to me summarized her life. The meme she spawned—the NOTORIOUS RBG—was on its face silly. But it expressed something all around her sensed. What underlay her questions from the bench, and the words she wrote, and the entire life she lived was a determination that seemed all but superhuman. When she entered Harvard Law, she was unsubtly urged by Dean Erwin Griswold to consider giving up her place to a man. In the last years of her service, she was loudly urged by many outside the Court to resign and allow Barack Obama to nominate a replacement. I have no idea what was in her mind, but her decision to stay on the bench was a grim gamble with fate. But it shouldn’t have surprised anyone. When she chose to stay on the Court, I wrote that Ginsburg had the “body of a sparrow and the heart of a lion.”

A nation already reeling—from a terrifying pandemic, from violence, from brutal repression in the streets, from apocalyptic wildfire, and most important, from a government that simply refuses to care—has lost an irreplaceable spirit. She exited the world as we all will—as a human being, leaving behind the deeds she performed and the words she wrote as an ambiguous gift to an uncertain future.

Tomorrow the politics. Tomorrow the list of names. Tomorrow McConnell, and Susan Collins, and the future of Roe v. Wade, and the dark-money ads, and the ghoulish glee from the right. Legitimacy, court-packing, stolen seat—all the Supreme Court nightmares of the past four years will be replayed in a searing summary in the weeks between now and November 3.

But tonight we mourn.

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Garrett Epps

Garret Epps is the Legal Affairs Editor of the Washington Monthly and a professor of law emeritus at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of American Epic: Reading the U.S. Constitution and four other books about the Constitution.