Georgia Bar Journal
October 2020, Vol. 26, No. 2
The adjective “notorious,” when used to describe a person, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “generally known and talked of . . . especially: widely and unfavorably known.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg picked up the nickname “Notorious R.B.G.,” affectionately because used with her initials it sounded similar to that of her fellow Brooklyn native and famous rap artist Notorious B.I.G. As we all are aware, it had nothing to do with her reputation, because Justice Ginsburg was as honorable, reputable and respectable—the antonyms of notorious—as any current public figure.
Upon Justice Ginsburg’s death at the age of 87, a generation of Americans—especially women, lawyers and women lawyers like me—lost a role model, an inspiration and a hero. She was indeed a trailblazer, the second female and first female Jewish justice in the history of our nation’s highest court. She was, as Chief Justice John Roberts has said, “a tireless and resolute champion of justice.”
That description applies not only to Justice Ginsburg’s 27 years on the Supreme Court, where she wrote many notable majority opinions and many equally notable and passionate dissents, but also during her pre-judicial career. As a volunteer attorney and later general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, she was a fierce advocate for gender equality. In fact, legal scholars and advocates credit Ginsburg’s efforts in that role with achieving significant legal advances for women. She won many arguments before the Supreme Court prior to her appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Justice Ginsburg was a champion for the equal rights of all, including women. “I don’t say women’s rights,” Justice Ginsburg declared. “I say the constitutional principle of the equal citizenship stature of men and women.”
Throughout her life and career, Justice Ginsburg was an inspirational teacher and leader as well. On the topic of leadership, Justice Ginsburg stressed, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to you.” This remains one of my absolute favorite quotes.
Of all national public officials, Justice Ginsburg was perhaps the most transparent when it came to her personal health. Because of that, we know that she had five bouts with cancer over 21 years, including three in the last two years. She underwent numerous surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation for colon and pancreatic cancer, and was hospitalized on multiple occasions for treatments of other conditions. But her duties were never interrupted.
During the course of a chemotherapy treatment in July of this year, Justice Ginsburg issued a statement that read in part, “I am tolerating chemotherapy well and am encouraged by the success of my current treatment. I will continue biweekly chemotherapy to keep my cancer at bay and am able to maintain an active daily routine. Throughout, I have kept up with opinion writing and all other Court work. I have often said I would remain a member of the Court as long as I can do the job full steam. I remain fully able to do that.” At the time of her passing, Justice Ginsburg had written 15 opinions during the current term of the Supreme Court—which ended Oct. 4—including dissents on significant decisions involving the extension of the absentee ballot deadlines during the COVID-19 pandemic and religious exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Justice Ginsburg died on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the significance of which in the Jewish tradition, as tweeted by her close friend and NPR correspondent Nina Totenberg, “God has held back until the last moment (because) they were needed most and were the most righteous.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, noting that R.B.G. was named for the biblical Ruth, great-grandmother of King David, told Reuters, “I like to think of our Ruth, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in terms of the generation to come that will carry on her legacy and do what she did—which is to repair many of the injustices of the world.”
Along with the passing of Georgia Congressman John Lewis just two months earlier, the loss of Justice Ginsburg means our continuing national movement for civil rights and equal justice must go on without two of its greatest icons. Their legacies demand that it continues, and we must work to ensure that it does.
An honor befitting her monumental contributions to justice and society while she lived, Justice Ginsburg was the first woman and first Jewish person to lie in state at the Capitol when she died. While the exact timing is the subject of political debate right now, we do know that sometime in the future a successor to Justice Ginsburg will be nominated, confirmed and seated on the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, she is and will remain irreplaceable. Rest well, Notorious R.B.G.