Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Justice Ginsburg: A Model of Civility

In her decency, critical thinking, and grace, she was exactly what the soul of America is lacking right now.
September 18, 2020
Justice Ginsburg: A Model of Civility
LONG BEACH, CA - OCTOBER 26: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attends California first lady Maria Shriver's annual Women's Conference 2010 on October 26, 2010 at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California. Attendees to the conference include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and candidates for California Governor Republican Meg Whitman and Democrat Jerry Brown. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

One could almost feel the collective, international gasp at the breaking news of the death on Friday of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at the age of 87, from complications related to pancreatic cancer. Justice Ginsburg was first diagnosed in 2009, beating back for years a demonic malignancy that claims most lives in less than half that time. She was a warrior—a warrior for civil rights, for gender rights, for constitutional rights, to be sure. But in this moment of American history when democracy itself hangs by a thread, with a yawning crevasse of authoritarianism menacingly before us, perhaps her most important contribution is a reminder of a life lived with an unflinching value system—a value system defined by civility, compassion, critical thinking, decency, and grace. She was exactly what the soul of America is lacking right now.

Famously, RBG and the late Justice Antonin Scalia were close friends. Upon his unexpected death, her remarks modeled the kind of integrity and friendship that we hope for our own children:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: “We are different, we are one,” different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the “applesauce” and “argle bargle”—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh.

Where has RBG’s spirit of respect and tolerance gone? Does it still live amid the purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain?

To be sure, Justice Ginsburg was not alone among members of the Supreme Court in her penchant for putting civility and professionalism over politics—it is an ethos of that institution that, so far, has survived this dark era of American history. But as a woman who, despite her top grades at Harvard and Columbia Law Schools, took a job teaching law when no law firm would hire her, Justice Ginsburg occupied a Supreme Court class by herself.

An icon of popular culture, with two hit films to her name and a Saturday Night Live impersonation that only a cultural phenomenon would merit, she started off with humble beginnings in Brooklyn. She married her sweetheart and reared an infant as a law student in the 1950s—a feat that humbles women even today, and is all the better due to her work as a tireless champion of gender equality.

Unlike many of the bullies now dotting Washington, D.C., Justice Ginsburg gained her power and stature through relentlessly hard work, along with impeccable intellectual study and rigor. She took her last breath at a moment when—thanks to White House and Kremlin lies, political gaslighting, and cruel gamesmanship—we find ourselves fighting about whether facts are facts and law is law. The days when we debated policy, not reality, seem halcyon now—when we could talk about issues without kneejerk hatred and demonization of those who disagree with us.

Tragically, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no time—just hours after she died, while the grieving grasped for the implications of this loss—to poke half the population in the eye with the callous announcement that Ginsburg’s replacement will come swiftly and decidedly. Of course, the hypocrisy of this maneuver is bone-chilling, as McConnell infamously deprived President Obama of his constitutional prerogative to appoint Judge Merrick Garland—a moderate—to the Supreme Court on the cynical rationale that it was too close to the 2016 election.

This will surprise no one; Mitch McConnell long ago revealed himself to be a ruthless, unprincipled political operator. The trouble is that he does have the power—with a slim Republican Senate majority in his grasp—to carry out his promise.

For now, RBG’s spirit still lingers. Let’s hope that Senate Republicans—assuming they accept the timeline that the “dear leader” duo of Trump and McConnell has already established—will be prompted by their better angels to insist on two things in a nominee.

First, someone with competence to do the job. With all the upset over the confirmations of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, no one can accuse either of lacking the intellectual chops for the job. Second, refuse to confirm a divider, a splitter, a fearmongerer. Have a shred of compassion for the millions who quake at the thought of what generations of a solidly conservative 6-3 majority will mean for themselves, their families, and the less advantaged of society.

If Senate Republicans don’t do those two things, at the very least, all of their accolades for the life well lived by Ruth Bader Ginsburg will become utterly meaningless.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.