Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but, like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them. ~ Carl Schurz
As an appellate lawyer and a woman standing on the shoulders of countless pioneers who paved my way, I had admired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg long before she was dubbed RBG. But I had not studied her writings beyond scholarly summaries in seminars or journals. The two times I heard her speak live were from afar, allowing for no interaction. I also had little occasion to apply the equal rights jurisprudence for which she was best known in my business-focused appellate practice. So, while aware of her ground-breaking work and well-deserved celebrity, I found my daily life unaffected by Justice Ginsburg in any palpable way.
Or so I thought. . . . Her passing affected me so immensely, shaking me to the core. I felt as if a protective, guiding hand had been lifted from not only my head, but from our country’s back, leaving us both adrift. Shortly afterwards, during a seminar about the Supreme Court’s October 2020 term, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky hit the nail on the head when he attributed the magnitude of our grief over RBG’s passing to the fact that she was a hero at a time when our profession has few heroes. But RBG was more than a real-life hero; she was a disarmingly relatable human who made us believe we could be heroes ourselves.
Her superpower was her brain, reflected in her pen. In eighth grade, she wrote an editorial for her school newspaper about the five greatest documents the world had known to date. With clear-eyed brevity, she made the case for why the United Nations Charter should join the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the British Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence as documents that benefited humanity “as a result of their fine ideals and principles.” Reading this in a collection of her writings titled In My Own Words, I realized that middle-school-me would have already been inspired by eighth-grade-RBG.
RBG’s ability to change hearts and minds by writing and speaking persuasively continued to be on full display in her teachings, speeches, and publications throughout her career—first as a law professor at Rutgers University and Columbia Law School, then as the one of the most winning appellate advocates at the ACLU, later as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and an associate justice on the Supreme Court, and always as a sought-after public speaker and officiant. For someone whose words and work proved so revolutionary, she strategically advocated for surprisingly incremental change—change that invited everyone along, instead of dragging them to a desired conclusion about equality under the law for parental estate administration, dependent benefits for military spouses, social security benefits and tax deductions, and even separating the wheat from the chaff to equalize beer purchasing. Even in her powerful dissents, she aimed to persuade rather than berate the majority, using accessible, everyday English to discuss why the other Justices’ interpretation of complex legislation or jurisprudence was mistaken. In her influential dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, Ginsburg candidly noted that her male colleagues did “not comprehend or [were] indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination.” She also successfully put the “ball” in Congress’s court “to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII”—in 2009, they enacted the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Four years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, she explained in her dissent that invalidating an anti-discrimination mechanism in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that applied to historically segregated Southern States 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.” How RBG’s dissenting words will inspire legislators and advocates to reinstate or strengthen voter protection provisions remains to be seen.
Though she refused to use the traditional phrase I “respectfully” dissent, RBG seemed to do so because she genuinely respected the colleagues with whom she disagreed. It seemed hypocritical to her to pretend that she admired the majority’s reasoning while systematically explaining why it was fundamentally mistaken or incorrect. Based on unspoken mutual respect, she bravely and candidly disagreed with her colleagues’ analysis while trying not to criticize their motives or intelligence. In an era of growing incivility in political, legal, and civic discourse, RBG modeled how to consistently take the moral high ground without being disingenuous or artificial. At the same time, she never forgot to use her iconic voice to further her core purpose, which, in the words of 19th century feminist and abolitionist she quoted during her argument in Frontiero v. Richardson, was to have women’s “brethren take their feet off our necks.”
In Part II, I will describe how RBG was able to transcend the generational divide and serve as a role model to old, young, moderate, and radical.
Rupa G. Singh is a certified appellate specialist at Niddrie Addams Fuller Singh LLP, a past vice-president of Lawyers Club of San Diego, happily married to her intellectual equal, and the proud mother of three RBG groupies.