The fight for the seat: RBG’s passing and legacy

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Sabrina Barnes

Gabi Karlan, Staff Writer

Major turmoil and debate erupted in Washington after the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) on Sept. 18, 2020. Her death raised a barrage of questions: Which president will make the nomination? Who will replace her? When will she be replaced? 

But for many, her passing meant more than a vacancy on the land’s highest court.

“It was a really hard loss, especially in the middle of the Jewish High Holidays [Ginsburg died on Erev Rosh Hashanah] and the pandemic,” senior Anna Levy said. “We are mourning her. We lost a pioneer.” 

Nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993, RBG was the second woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the court. Ginsburg attended Cornell for her bachelor’s degree and Harvard and Columbia for law school. RBG was a steadfast advocate for women’s rights and gender equality—widely referred to as “The Notorious RBG” for her passionate dissents.

Over 27 years on the court, Ginsburg wrote over 400 opinions for the Supreme Court and consistently fought against discrimination on the basis of sex, including a case on male discrimination in Moritz v. Commissioner and another on outdated, misogynistic laws in Reed v. Reed

“[Ginsburg] fought discrimination against both men and women—their gender did not matter to her; it was simply discrimination,” Deborah Lazar, an Illinois Holocaust Museum docent working with the Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg exhibition, said.

Lazar mentioned a Martin Luther King Jr. quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Ginsburg had an addendum to the quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” As a Supreme Court Justice, RBG gained acclamation for her well-argued dissents that pushed the nation towards justice. 

“RBG resonated with youths because of her strong voice on issues of civil rights and liberties; her dissent [could be] more powerful than her voice in the majority because it was laying down a blueprint for our country to move forward,” Lazar commented.

The Supreme Court is the final arbiter in interpreting the Constitution and presides over all federal and state courts. The judiciary branch, per Marbury v. Madison, holds the ability to decide the constitutionality of statutes, laws, ordinances and executive orders, and, therefore, carries the ultimate check over the executive and legislative branches. 

“The purpose of the Supreme Court is to make a decision in the interest of the American people, to ensure that justice is being upheld,” Levy said. 

On her deathbed, RBG dictated a message to her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

Disregarding her final wishes, Senate Republicans immediately announced their intentions to fill the seat, and, on Sept. 26, President Donald Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett. Barrett has served on the 7th Circuit US Court of Appeals since 2017 and is a former clerk to the late, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

“It’s a shame that they’re not waiting. I think it would be the right thing,” Lazar said. “It’s just hypocritical.”

This hypocrisy originates from Republican actions following Scalia’s passing in February 2016, nine months before the general election, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to fulfill the Senate’s obligation to advise the president’s nomination until after the election. 

Republicans stood behind him, and, in a 2016 Senate meeting, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “I want you to use my words against me. If there’s a Republican president in 2016, and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said ‘Let’s let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination.’” Despite this, Graham recently tweeted he supported Trump “in any effort to move forward regarding the recent vacancy.”

“The Republican majority proposed that the current president shouldn’t make the decision this close to an election,” former ETHS history teacher Marybeth O’Mara commented. “The people who proposed that Obama shouldn’t be able to push a nominee through are now saying they are going to push one through in time for this election, even though RBG only passed away 45 days before the general election.”

The Supreme Court holds vast influence over nearly all parts of government, including the upcoming election, voting, and census. Numerous legal battles over voting are soon to be on the court docket, including a Florida case on the voting rights of former felons. And, on Oct. 13, the Supreme Court ruled to stall the 2020 census, likely resulting in the underrepresentation of groups difficult to count, including immigrants and low-income individuals (National Urban League). Minority and disenfranchised groups are particularly vulnerable to changes in policy and precedent set by the Supreme Court. 

Barrett holds a voting record that is almost uniform with current conservative stances on controversial issues including gun rights and abortion. Barrett espouses originalism, a philosophy asserting that the Constitution should be interpreted as originally intended. 

“The whole thing is terrifying for me. Whoever he chooses only got where she is because of RBG [opened doors], and now she is going to close all of those doors. It’s definitely scary to lose my rights,” Levy said.

At a vigil for RBG, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot remarked: “This election means more now than ever, and in the name of Ruth, we must fight and we must win. We cannot allow them to tear us apart.”

Senior Madelyn Janda says that Evanston “could become more united because now, more than ever, we have to fight for these rights.” And for many, with the world in disarray, it is time to step up and speak out. 

Levy commented, “It is a scary world right now; the best we can do is push people to vote and make a change while we can.”