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In our opinion: Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is anything but ordinary

SHARE In our opinion: Justice Ginsburg’s legacy is anything but ordinary
Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg walks off stage after receiving a Jefferson Award for Public Service in Washington, Tuesday, June 21, 2011.

Cliff Owen, Associated Press

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s former law clerk, David Schizer, may have had the keenest insight into the late Supreme Court justice’s way of operating.

“She understood if you’re trying to do something momentous, you should present it as quite ordinary,” he told Fox News.

Contrast that with today’s social media-induced landscape of shouting and foot stomping, where partisans scream past each other and the terms “liberal” and “conservative” become team mascots rather than philosophies deserving of careful and nuanced consideration.

Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87, could separate passionate legal arguments from personal relationships because she valued what so many people today seem to forget. A person’s worth as a human being is separate from his or her opinions. 

Her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative firebrand, was genuine and legendary. It was built on their similarities — an upbringing in New York, the mutual love of opera — but it carried over into areas some of today’s partisans would find astonishing. 

Scalia’s son, Christopher Scalia, recalled in an op-ed that Ginsburg would help his father bolster his arguments, even though she disagreed with them. In turn, she said his arguments helped her rethink and strengthen her own.

If this feels foreign to Americans in 2020, it is because they have drifted so far in such a short period of time. The virtually universal praise and fond remembrances of Ginsburg being offered by Republicans and Democrats ought to remind us.  

When President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, she was ratified by the Senate, 96-3. This was in 1993, not really so long ago, and yet it seems so very distant by today’s standards. Senators at the time had no misgivings about Ginsburg’s ideological leanings, or her support for abortion rights. They were mostly concerned with her fitness for office, to which there were no credible objections.  

Ginsburg certainly was fit. She was tirelessly dedicated to understanding and interpreting the law, and upholding the Constitution as she felt best. She had a tenacity born of a life filled with hard-earned success despite the cultural barriers that stood in her way. She was a patriot, filled with the love of country that, as with so many Americans, was informed by her own roots. 

She was born in Brooklyn, New York, of Jewish parents. Her father had left Ukraine at the age of 13. Her mother’s family were recent immigrants from Poland. Neither place was good for Jews in the mid-20th century. The United States, despite its prejudices and cultural barriers, offered promise and hope.

“What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court justice?” she asked in a speech during a Holocaust memorial ceremony. “Just one generation, my mother’s life and mine bear witness.”

It would be fruitless to argue that Ginsburg’s soft-spoken, kind nature kept her from achieving her goals, or from changing the country. Her brilliant mind was on constant display, often most effectively in her written dissents to majority opinions. She never veered from her core principles. She pushed herself as hard as she did others. 

But she never lost sight of the respect that was due others.

At her death, former Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch tweeted about his relationship with her, despite their ideological differences. “I hope that as an American family, we can one day look beyond politics to see what’s best in each other as Ruth and I did,” he said.

If that is her legacy, the nation truly will be a better place because of it.