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OpinionEditorial

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fighter to the end

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is pictured in 2018 during

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is pictured in 2018 during a photo session with the Supreme Court. Credit: The Washington Post/Jabin Botsford

If only the nation could simply mourn a brilliant and courageous woman who led the fight for equality under the law and inspired generations with her courage and determination for fairness and justice.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a gutsy New Yorker who was the second woman to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, used her career with such resolve to advance women’s rights that she became the iconic leader of the cause. As is the American way, and with her own embrace of her fame, RBG also became a pop-culture icon with a workout routine, bobblehead dolls, and lapel pins replicating the dainty woven collar she wore over her black robe. She loved the moment she earned.

Case by case, whether as a brilliant legal tactician or jurist, Ginsburg embodied how women can use power and influence to smash cultural binds that limit their potential. As a jurist, her clear writings showed compassion and empathy for all of those on the margins, and she pushed back forcefully against the court's current drive to restrict civil and voting rights.

Ginsburg's battles

Ginsburg’s passing Friday night after 27 years on the high court and years of noble battles against debilitating illnesses, including pancreatic cancer, will become a defining issue during a presidential election that is about six weeks away in a nation sharply divided about its path forward. Ginsburg shared a deep friendship and respect for fellow jurist Antonin Scalia, who was a driving force of conservative ideology on the court. Their civility toward each other and their ability to understand and appreciate vastly different legal and policy views should be a model for our governmental leaders. Unfortunately, the ugly partisanship that blocked President Barack Obama from filling Scalia's seat after he died in February 2016 with Merrick Garland, an accomplished jurist with centrist views, again will take center stage, causing another deep gash in the foundation of independence and integrity on which the Supreme Court must stand.

Despite being at the top of her class at Harvard and Columbia law schools, Ginsburg was rejected by law firms and denied prestigious clerkships because of her gender, Jewish religion and motherhood. She, along with her husband, Martin, who was a true partner in their legal work and in their home, worked to eliminate those obstacles. She had the strategic patience to find ways in which the laws discriminated against men in favor of women to show the inherent unfairness of gender-based classifications. Ginsburg’s own life mirrored the struggle for the equality and social progress she advocated, and she knew intuitively that in time minority views offering bold wisdom would inevitably shape accepted views.

An American hero

Mourning for an American hero will not stop the political furor unleashed within hours after her death was announced. But Ginsburg, who quietly seethed at the indignities she faced in the legal system, was never far from making political calculations about the court, understanding that her replacement would determine its ideological direction for a generation. Despite pressure from liberals, she refused to retire when she first became ill so that Obama could replace her with a more like-minded jurist.

Ginsburg knew that even in the 21st century a male would never have been asked to give up his seat on the court. As a first-generation American, whose Jewish parents emigrated from Russia, she believed in the democratic values of a country where the arc of justice would bend toward what is right and fair. And she was never afraid of a fight.

Days before she died at age 87, she passed the torch to a new generation, giving her granddaughter these words to spread: "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed." A lover of opera, her exit from the stage foreshadowed the drama coming in the next act.

The weeks ahead

What happens in the next few weeks will likely determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump told the Senate to quickly confirm his nominee and his choice could be announced as early as this week. Unfortunately and not unexpectedly, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would do so. The ensuing battle will only further tear at our fragile democracy. The selection of a new justice should be made by the winner of the presidential election.

But Ginsburg understood that the fight is as important as the victory. And, as she had done her whole life, she would have been ready to lead the charge.

— The editorial board

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