The writer is dean of stanford law school
The death of us supreme court justice ruth bader ginsburg has been met with widespread grief and shock, even though her passing at the age of 87 was not a surprise given her repeated bouts of cancer and other health problems in recent years. still, at barely five feet tall and a hundred pounds, the tiny jurist had seemed indestructible because of her dignified fierceness.
Only the second woman ever to serve on the highest us court, ginsburg had established herself as one of the most important constitutional lawyers of her generation even before she was elevated to the bench. as a lawyer for the american civil liberties union in the 1970s, she won a series of landmark cases establishing that the 14th amendments guarantee of equal protection of the laws not onlyprohibited racial discrimination but also protected womens rights to be treated equally.
On her way to the high court, ginsburg repeatedly encountered sex and pregnancy discrimination. i still remember when i was preparing to argue a case before the supreme court in 2004, an older colleague warned me not to mix her up with sandra day oconnor, then the only other female justice. apparently, it was a mistake that male lawyers made surprisingly frequently. i had to laugh the two women looked and sounded nothing alike.
Ginsburg authored many important majority decisions in areas from constitutional law to civil procedure, a drier subject that was her academic speciality when she became the first female professor to receive tenure at columbia law school. her 1996 opinion for a 7-1 majority requiring the virginia military institute to admit women provided a capstone to her work on womens rights.
But as she became the most senior of the courts four-member liberal minority, ginsburg became even more famous for her dissenting opinions.in 2007, the court turned down the employment discrimination claim of lilly ledbetter who had been systematically paid less by her employer than similarly situated male employees on the grounds that the claim should have been raised years earlier. ginsburgs passionate dissent, making clear that ms ledbetter could not have known she was being paid less, led congress to amend the law to allow such claims.
In recent years ginsburgs public image was transformed from quiet and cerebral jurist to popular icon. the subject of popular books and movies, she saw her image appear on bobblehead dolls, t-shirts and mugs and little girls dressed up as her for halloween. the grounds of the supreme court bloomed into a memorial over the weekend, as thousands came to honour her.
Ginsburgs life story captured the imagination of young women and people from diverse backgrounds who saw in her life the promise that their under-appreciated voices, perspectives and talents might someday be recognised, and that her compelling arguments that the law protected their rights would eventually win the day.
Her death in the middle of a contentious presidential race has plunged the future of the supreme court into uncertainty.if donald trump is able to name her replacement, that justice could tip the courts current 5-4 conservative majority to 6-3. that would all but end the moderating role played by swing voters on the court over the past three decades, including justices oconnor and anthony kennedy and more recently chief justice john roberts, in key cases on immigration, abortion, lgbtq rights and healthcare.
With republicans poised to try to push a replacement through this year, her replacement will face a far different nomination process than ginsburg did in 1993, when the senate voted to confirm her by a vote of 96-3.
More than anything, the moment raises the possibility that the supreme court will fully tumble into extreme partisanship and no longer be viewed as anything close to a neutral arbiter of law.ginsburg managed to pairvigorous intellectual exchange with respect and even friendship with those on the other side of legal debates.most famous was her friendship with conservative justice antonin scalia, with whom she shared a love of opera.
In recent years, she advised young people to fight for the thingsthatyou care about, butdoit in a waythat will lead others tojoin you. it was in this spirit that she lived her life, believing that reasoned argument would lead to justice under the law.
In this polarised moment, that spirit of believing that reasonable people can seek to persuade one another, and that the law, properly interpreted, will allow all americans to have a seat at the table, seems in danger of being lost. it needs fierce defenders more than ever.