While attending the University of Chicago in 2018, I had the good fortune to have a part-time job as a community outreach coordinator for the soon-to-be-released “RBG” documentary. On premiere night at the Gold Coast Theatre, the Chicagoans I had come to know turned out in force.
The gray-haired justice book group was followed by some little girls with their mothers. Film buffs, law students, elected officials, and a church group were all present and excited to learn more about this notorious intellectual giant. Everyone was moved by her story. The little girl who went in wearing an RBG costume came out standing a little taller in her black robe and white jabot. This was the power of Ginsburg’s transcendent appeal.
More recently, as a CNN associate producer covering the Supreme Court, I was assigned a retrospective story about Justice Ginsburg’s most impactful decisions during her long career. I wrote the story factually and objectively, with no fanfare, and placed it in reserve for what I hoped would be a very long time.
But she deserves the fanfare.
Like Thurgood Marshall – the Court’s first African-American justice – before her, Ginsburg spent much of her time on the bench in the minority. She gave voice to underdogs and oppressed minorities. She wrote blistering dissents, sometimes breaking with tradition to read them aloud, that packed a punch from the losing side. Through the sheer force of her dissenting opinion on a landmark equal pay case, she successfully pushed the other two branches of government into action after Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 2006-2007, leading to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009.
I admired her disdain for injustice and discrimination in her prescient dissent in the 2013 voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, which sought to defang federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. She pointed out the paradox of the majority opinion, writing that “throwing out preclearance 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.”
Her feminism was well-earned. As only the second female and sixth Jewish person on the Supreme Court, her journey was often beset by discrimination and challenged by societal norms. “When I’m sometimes asked when there will be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody ever raised a question about that,” she said. This underdog sensibility was well-reflected with a majority opinion in the seminal 1996 case, U.S. v. Virginia, which forced the Virginia Military Institute to admit women. Her words set important precedent for gender equality.
I so greatly admired her quiet ferocity and “small c” conservative approach. She was easy to underestimate. That was, of course, her secret weapon. Like a literary ninja, her arguments and responses were constructed with artful precision for maximum impact. As the court drifted right, this clear-thinking liberal lioness seemed to be carrying the weight of justice on her tiny shoulders.
Her grounded authenticity and delight in mentorship is how she inspired little girls in RBG costumes and aspiring lawyers. Speaking with law students, she once had this to say: “If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill – very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself … something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.”
While reporting during these tumultuous times, I have been heartened to see thoughtful lawyers rushing to defend the Constitution. I have seen lawyers at CNN defending press access to the White House and Congressional counsel drafting oversight subpoenas. Heroes are the compassionate pro bono lawyers who greet recent immigrants at airports and travel to the U.S./Mexican border to reunite children with their families. Their tireless advocacy and selfless humanity is a countermeasure to some of the most pernicious forces in our society. Their work is also very much in the spirit of Ginsburg’s dissent.
A great American voice has been silenced, but she left us a written roadmap to a more just society. As we mourn and navigate the politics of filling her seat, we must simultaneously grab the baton and continue her fight, because the fight is ours. It is, in large part, up to the legal profession to keep us from losing sight of what we stand for.
May her memory be a revolution.
Jamie Ehrlich grew up in Marblehead and attends Boston College Law School.