Farewell to the Notorious RBG

The headlines from across the other side of the Atlantic are so often dominated by just one person these days – it takes something extraordinary to knock the Donald off the headlines. But that is exactly what happened at the end of last week when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was brought to lie in state beneath the rotunda of the Capitol in Washington. The flags flew at half mast and the black-clad clerks from her entire career in the US Supreme Court lined the marble steps of the Capitol as her coffin was carried in, draped with the Stars and Stripes. Just for a brief time nothing much else seemed to matter; partisanship in American politics was made to seem trivial, the traffic halted leaving just the wind to move on a day that suddenly had a new focus. Even the president, taken unawares by the news of her death, responded in a statesmanlike way. Putting aside all of the battles that he had in the past he said that she was ‘an amazing woman who led an amazing life’. A truism from anyone else, but from Donald Trump it seemed sincere.

RBG was a diminutive figure, but a towering personality in the Supreme Court for nearly three decades. She fought for civil rights and equality for women throughout her career, winning notable judgements to change the rights for women throughout the United States and also using her dissenting essays at the Supreme Court to establish firm platform for argument as the law evolves in US Society. She was liberal to the core, and probably became more so as she got older, leading to notable battles both against a conservative majority amongst the justices as well as testy exchanges with the current incumbent of the White House. And of course judgements in US Courts can have an effect elsewhere; her influence on issues such as human rights, equality, gay marriage and abortion will have carried much weight. Her view on the gender balance of the Supreme Court was settled, for instance. Asked ‘when will there be enough women there?’, her answer was ‘When there are nine – people are shocked by that, but there’d been nine men and nobody’s ever raised a question about that’. Uncompromising views then, but in the UK there are very similar issues, as yet not fully addressed.

Having been to the Capitol and stood under that domed roof I can understand just what it must have been like for her lying in state, the first woman and only the second Supreme Court Justice to have been accorded that honour. But don’t get the wrong idea here – RBG had a deeply rooted sense of what it meant to be ordinary too, as you might expect of a Brooklyn girl. Asked what she would like her legacy to be she said ‘To make life better for people less fortunate than you, that’s what I think a meaningful life is. One lives not just for oneself, but for one’s community. I think that she did just that.