Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020)
by Dr. Deborah Kaye
The concept of doing justice, troubling over justice, over right and wrong is part of the human experience. Doing justice is also one of the fundamental tenets of Judaism echoed in the declaration--Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue (Deut. 16:20). As a Judaic Studies professor, whether teaching about biblical Sinai or the Civil Rights era, students learn that doing justice lies at the very heart of being Jewish. No better example of doing justice is that of the legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who championed human rights and progressive causes, paving the way for gender equality.
This year, Americans mourn Ginsburg whose life and career exemplifies the concept of doing justice. A pioneer for women’s rights throughout her distinguished career, she was one of only nine women at Harvard Law in 1956. She was a stellar student there and at Columbia where she eventually received her degree. No law firm hired Ginsburg despite having graduated top in her class. At a disadvantage as a female attorney, she spent her early career years teaching civil procedure at Rutgers and later, Columbia, one of only a few women in her field. Her experiences with sex discrimination inspired her to work pro bono for the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1980, Ginsburg was appointed to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where she served until 1993 to become the first Jewish woman and the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Prior to Ginsburg’s advocacy, the Supreme Court had never applied the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution to the sex- or gender-based classifications that had long pervaded law. Ginsburg developed a powerful theory to bring that constitutional guarantee to bear on such discrimination.
Along with doing justice to combat sex discrimination, Ginsburg’s identity as a Jew played a major in role in her activism, especially on behalf of immigrants, minority groups and the disabled. In a 2018 article in The Jewish Forward, journalist Jane Eisner wrote that “Ginsburg saw being a Jew as having a place in society in which you’re always reminded you are an outsider, even when she, as a Supreme Court justice, was the ultimate insider.” That says it all! In the short video introduction below to the Tucson Humanities Festival, I share some of my thoughts on how Ginsburg’s Jewish roots informed her unique sense of justice. Thought-provoking lectures, inspirational poetry and performance marks this year’s festival, offering creative and original approaches to the theme of justice. With the link provided you can access these informative events for your own personal viewing. I’m sure you will enjoy them as much as I have.