Saturday, September 19, 2020

I Dissent

Around four years ago, I bought a pin I wore on the lapel of my winter coat. It said simply, "I dissent." 

The quote, although certainly not exclusively, was Ruth Bader Ginsberg's, in her written opinion to Bush v. Gore. Ruth Bader Ginsberg laid out the case that every legally cast vote should be counted, and that an arbitrarily set deadline for finishing the recount was not reason enough to stop the process. 

"In sum, the Court’s conclusion that a constitutionally adequate recount is impractical is a prophecy the Court’s own judgment will not allow to be tested. Such an untested prophecy should not decide the Presidency of the United States.

I dissent."
The mic drop at the end was fabulous, and set the tone for the rest of her time on the bench. 

I was several months away from graduating with my political science degree when this was published. My absolute favorite course toward that degree was Constitutional Law, and I still have the textbook. I go back and re-read opinions (I've referred to Korematsu  v. US a number of times in my career, usually as scathing example of what-not-to-do). That class taught me to love reading judicial publications (years later, I had Obergefell v. Hodges pinned to my desktop for several weeks after publication before I could pour through its contents), so much so that I seriously considered, and at one point planned to pursue a JD. What stopped me was the realization that I wanted to be a judge, not a lawyer. I couldn't get to that end without trial experience, and I didn't think I wanted that. 

And at the time, Con Law taught me that the Supreme Court justices were relatively mysterious, that they rarely gave public interviews and kept their lives mostly shrouded from view in service to the Court. 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg changed that, and her increased public presence coincided with my entry into post-undergraduate adulthood. Before she was the "Notorious RBG", I was interested in her story. I read what I could about her life, noting that she didn't have a biography published (until 2016), so I relied on what was published about her. When Notorious RGB was published, I read it. When In My Own Words finally came out, I devoured it like ice cream. I went to a screening of RBG when it was released, and I cried on a plane over On the Basis of Sex during the end scene where the character played by Felicity Jones is walking up the steps of the Supreme Court and is replaced by a real-life image of the Justice herself. My friend Lauren snuck me in to an online live interview with RBG for Columbia women alumni. Last Christmas, Eric got me The Unstoppable Ruth Bader Ginsberg coffee-table book, and her face has been in our living room ever since. RBG-wear has crept into my wardrobe over the years, starting with a Halloween costume I made myself, and my personal favorite, a "when there are nine" necklace that sums up my views nicely (the follow-on is "there'd been nine men, and no one was shocked about that." Its the idea that full equality is reached when no one is surprised or shocked that women, men, majorities and minorities are so well-represented everywhere and such a regular part of the fabric of society that no one is shocked, surprised or concerned when all nine Supreme Court justices are women.)

Ruth Bader Ginsberg was an example for me - her personal life and professional life, as well as that of her husband's. The tradeoffs they both made, in both achieving law degrees, dealing with cancer, raising family and developing careers, has been a model. She remembered her husband, Marty, who died in 2010, this way:" If you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me." 

She said "you can't have it all, all at once," (something that has stuck with me over the years) and yet over the course of her life, showed that eventually, and over time, you can have a lot if you make careful and diligent choices. She climbed an extraordinarily rare career ladder, one that only one other woman had ever climbed before her.

Out of both her scholarship and I believe, her personal experience, she understood the need for equality as defined by the 14th amendment and how equal protection under the law needed to be implemented in day-to-day life. It was no accident that she first argued a case in front of the Supreme Court that men just as women deserve tax deductions if they take time away from income-earning to care for an ailing family member. RBG knew that equality meant ensuring both men and women had choices and access to the same rights, so that they could individually make the best decisions for their families. 

I always liked to believe she and I would have gotten along if we'd ever met. I hoped without real expectation or means, that I would meet her someday. I hope she would have seen me as the product of what she fought for - a woman who is able to make her own choices, determine her own path, and consult with her spouse to make our own decisions on what's best for us with the assurance that neither of our genders play a differential role in what protections our government extends to us. I hope she would have found me worthy of that fight, and worthy to sit and learn from and listen to her. 

Her death yesterday feels like the death of family. Its inappropriate, I know. I didn't know her, I only saw her public persona and read her work. I viewed what she chose to place in the public eye, and she, like all of us, presented only a fraction of who she was for common consumption. And yet, this woman I didn't know had an extraordinary impact on me. I am grateful to her for it, and will miss her dearly.

Her life was extraordinary, her legacy, eternal. 

Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof : Deuteronomy 16:18

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