Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
By Professor Cynthia L. Fountaine
Today, I mourn with the rest of the country the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I share some personal thoughts and observations about the remarkable woman and her inspiring legacy.
Justice Ginsburg will be remembered as a brilliant lawyer who spent her life working to eradicate gender discrimination, who blazed the trail for professional women, and who was a relentless advocate for equal justice, democracy, and adherence to the rule of law. She will also be remembered for her spirit of generosity, good humor, and collegiality, and her great love for the legal profession.
The tenacity and commitment she displayed as a young mother in law school, as a new lawyer trying to find her first job in a legal profession dominated by men, and throughout her entire career, resonates with many and inspires us to keep giving our best to our own endeavors as we try to build on her legacy.
She recognized that—especially in the legal profession—we do not work in a vacuum. She drew support from others, and she was generous in giving support to others. She knew that she had to achieve her goals through collaboration, cooperation, and persuasion. She famously said, “fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” Her work—as the architect of the women’s legal rights movement and later as a Supreme Court Justice—was never done in a vacuum. She embraced and promoted the ideals of civility and collegiality in our profession and in our society.
In her 1993 confirmation hearing, Justice Ginsburg said “One of the world’s greatest jurists, Judge Learned Hand, said that the spirit of liberty that imbues our Constitution must lie, first and foremost, in the hearts of the men and women who compose this great nation. He defined that spirit, in a way I fully embrace, as one which is not too sure that it is right, and so seeks to understand the minds of other men and women and to weigh the interests of others alongside its own without bias. The spirt Judge Learned Hand described strives for a community where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest. I will keep that wisdom in the front of my mind as long as I am capable of judicial service.” She lived up to her promise of keeping this philosophy in the forefront of her mind during her judicial service. In addition, the public fame she received in the later part of her career—as the Notorious RBG—helped keep that spirit in the minds of the public as well.
Justice Ginsburg was also committed to paying her success forward. She not only held the ladder for those who came behind her, but she reached out a hand to help pull the next person up. I was fortunate to get to know Justice Ginsburg on a more personal basis through my work with the AALS Section on Women in Legal Education, both as Section Chair and as chair for several years of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award committee. She was one of the trailblazers who started the Section, and she continued throughout her time on the Court to be supportive of the Section’s work, often coming to meetings held in D.C. and speaking with and mentoring members of the Section.
While I was dean of SIU Law, I was particularly grateful to her for the time she gave our alumni who visited the Supreme Court to be sworn in as members of the Supreme Court Bar. There was never an instance when she did not take time out of her busy schedule to give us her personal attention, welcoming the newest members of the Supreme Court Bar, telling stories about the Court or the room we were visiting within the majestic Supreme Court building, answering questions, and inspiring all who had the opportunity to meet her.
Thank you, Justice Ginsburg, for your life of service to our profession and our country, and for always being willing to generously share your precious time with those who admire you. Chief Justice Roberts said “Our nation has lost a justice of historic stature. We at the Supreme Court have lost a cherished colleague. Today we mourn but with confidence that future generations will remember Ruth Bader Ginsburg as we knew her, a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
Justice Ginsburg often quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. saying “the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice,” herself adding, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” It is now incumbent on all of us to pick up the mantle and see the task through. In her words: “do something outside yourself to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is—living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”