All elections have consequences. Just prior to the 2016 presidential election, a conservative friend of mine asked me what I had to fear from this current administration.
Melba Pearson, policy director for the Center for the Administration of Justice at FIU
I had one answer – the Supreme Court. Sadly, I was right.
On Friday, we lost a giant and an icon – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She did not break down barriers; she torpedoed them. Justice Ginsburg truly made a way out of no way, attending school as a young mother, struggling against sexism to find a job after graduating at the top of her law school class at Columbia, and later creating the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU.
During her time as an attorney with the project, Ginsburg argued six cases before the Supreme Court, winning five (which is an enviable record). In one case, she argued on behalf of a man who’d been denied a caregiver deduction because of his gender. She wanted men and women to be able to have the same parental benefits. Ginsburg argued her first Supreme Court case challenging gender-based discrimination in 1973, in front of a court solely comprised of male justices.
“I knew that I was speaking to men who didn’t think there was any such thing as gender-based discrimination and my job was to tell them it really exists,” she said.
The same way we still have to convince elected officials that there is systemic racism is the same way Justice Ginsburg had to fight for equal treatment for women through proving such barriers existed. What is inspiring is that she did this at a time when women were barely working in professional positions, and those that did faced discrimination, harassment and belittlement.
Justice Ginsburg rose to the top of the legal field with a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton. In doing so, she became the First Jewish justice and second female justice after Sandra Day O’Connor. When President Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, he called Ginsburg the “Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.” She used her position to fight for privacy rights, reproductive rights, civil rights and the advancement of all marginalized communities. Justice Ginsburg cared deeply about capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use.
During her time on the Supreme Court, it declared it to be unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and young people under the age of 18 convicted of murder. Ginsburg’s fierce pen, which has been used to author scathing opposition to a ruling (known as a dissent) or very pointed rulings, became a thing of legend. Her impact is seen with her moniker, “Notorious RBG.” Shirts, memes, “Saturday Night Live” skits – no other justice has ever been an icon in pop culture.
Much like what many women experience (especially Black women), the hopes and dreams of half the nation were placed on her shoulders. As a collective, we literally begged Ginsburg to stay alive until after the 2020 election, for fear of another conservative judge who will vote to roll back voting rights, reproductive justice, equality in education, civil rights and so many other areas in which the current presidential administration fervently rejects progress.
Ginsburg’s life and work remind us that representation matters. She was a first. For several years, she was the only woman on the Supreme Court. We have yet to have a Black woman on the court and we struggle to elect Black women to our circuit courts. Our call to action is that when our Black women judges are appointed here in Miami, we must rally around them to defend their seats during elections with money, volunteer hours and votes. If you want to see change, you have to push forward women who have demonstrated that they care about our issues.
We cannot afford to have a situation like when Justice Clarence Thomas was appointed to replace Thurgood Marshall. History has made it very clear that Justice Marshall’s legacy was not upheld by Justice Thomas (other than the two sharing the same complexion). Skin color is never an assurance of compatible values. Federal judges – including on the Supreme Court – are appointed for life, and are selected from lower state courts. If we can’t keep Black women on the bench who champion the needs of our community, there will be no one waiting in the wings for when these positions become available.
As we face new challenges to civil rights and liberties, the passing of Justice Ginsburg leaves a huge void coupled with a fear of what is to come. We have a president who has no problem pushing through the appointment of justices with questionable moral character. This new court will be with us for 40 years – enough time to undo the progress made regarding civil rights and other protections we hold dear. We have a Senate majority leader in Mitch McConnell who denied President Barack Obama the opportunity to appoint a justice in the final 11 months of his term, but who has now hypocritically vowed to push through a confirmation with less than six weeks to Election Day.
The courts are the last bastion of relief when it comes to issues of rulings that can hold police accountable for unreasonable searches or force, when districts are being redrawn in a way that strips communities of color of their votes and resources, or to protect access to the ballot box for all.
Justice Ginsburg is quoted as saying “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”
In her honor, in honor of all those who fought for justice, take that first step and vote.
Melba Pearson is the policy director for the Center for the Administration of Justice at FIU. She was previously the deputy director at the ACLU of Florida and a Miami homicide prosecutor. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva.