Credit: GG Features Editor Nairne Clark Hopkinson (@nairne_creates)

The legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg: now what?

By Zuzanna Filipiuk

The legend, the legacy, and looking to the future in the Supreme Court

There is no other way to put this – Ruth Bader Ginsburg was one of the most influential and inspirational people of our time. At the time of her nomination in 1993, she was only the second woman to serve at the Supreme Court, a position she held for 27 years. Her legal legacy, including the time before the Supreme Court, left the United States a very different place from the one she was born in. She raised women to full jury duty and changed laws that differentiated on the basis of gender. Hers was the decisive vote that legalised same-sex marriage across the US. This is only a handful of examples in which Ginsburg changed American society. Most importantly, however, we must remember her for who she was when she first became a Supreme Court Justice – when possible, Ginsburg was always a consensus builder.

For many years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a centrist judge. Moreover, she forged friendships with right-leaning justices, such as Justice Antonin Scalia, whose view on the constitution was very different to her own. For years, Ginsburg tried to unite the Supreme Court, and by extension the American society. Depending on the issue, her views ranged from conservative to liberal. Her status as a unifying figure of the US was even reflected in the way the Senate confirmed her as a new Justice, with 96 people in favour and only 3 opposed. She was perceived by American society as a chance for both progress and unison. It was only when the Court started becoming increasingly conservative that she grew bolder in her dissent and started leaning towards the left, which earned her the title of “Notorious RBG”.

Ginsburg’s determination and passion for civil rights transformed the law, challenged social conventions, and boosted the development of gender equality, women’s rights, and the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. All the way throughout her career, from working as a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union to serving at the Supreme Court, her actions touched the lives of almost every single person alive today in the US. Until the very end, and despite her long-term battle with cancer, she stood on guard of democracy, protecting the rights of the most vulnerable groups. Once she was gone, people all across America were fearing what would come next. And their fear wasn’t misplaced, considering the candidate nominated in 2020 by President Trump to succeed Ginsburg in the Supreme Court. That candidate was Amy Coney Barrett. 

One could have been ecstatic that another female justice is going to join the Court, and hopefully, carry the legacy of the Notorious RBG. That, however, was not the case. Amy Coney Barrett was confirmed by the US Senate on 31 October, with all Democratic senators opposed and all but one Republican senator in favour. Such clear partisan division may be one of the best indicators of how far from Ginsburg’s ideals Barrett really is. Even more evidence could be found upon taking a closer look at Barrett’s background. Between 1998 and 1999 she worked as a judicial law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia; based on her own words, she will likely carry his legacy of the originalist thought – that the constitution should be interpreted according to the context in which it was written. However, this may be problematic because the constitution of the United States is argued to contain plenty of ambiguous language that, as many publications have pointed out, was meant to invite future generations to interpret in future contexts. Apart from her views on the constitution, Barrett had also been criticised for her almost entirely conservative voting in cases relating to immigration, discrimination, and abortion. Many are also concerned that her personal life as a devout Catholic will affect her duty as a Supreme Court Justice. As a Catholic myself, I dissent – Barrett’s religion is not a problem per se. The problem is whether she is professional enough to separate her personal beliefs from her duties as a justice. Judging by her past, and her conduct in the Supreme Court so far, it remains unlikely.

Barrett has links to conservative Christian organizations that promote traditional “Christian values”, including views on reproductive health and marriage. Between 2011 and 2016, she gave lectures at Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a summer program for law students established by the Alliance Defending Freedom – an American conservative Christian organization. In 2006, she signed a statement that targeted Roe v Wade, a case from 1973 which protected the woman’s right to abortion without excessive government restriction. No wonder that during the confirmation hearing for becoming a federal judge in 2017, Senator Diane Feinstein expressed her concerns that “the dogma lives loudly within” Barrett and may thus affect her duties as a judge. It should also be noted that with Barrett’s confirmation for the Supreme Court, the court has become dominated by Catholic judges which may result in it shifting towards an even more conservative ideology. 

To better understand how Amy Coney Barrett will continue to rule as a Supreme Court justice in 2021, we may want to ask another question – why Amy Coney Barrett? What reason did Donald Trump have to choose her specifically? Was she intended to be his own version of the Trojan Horse? It is no secret that during the presidency of Donald Trump, women experienced a painful backlash from his administration. First, he targeted reproductive health services and made it illegal for clinics and programs with federal funds to provide women with abortion services. Consequently, this decision had an impact on other essential services, including the provision of contraception, cancer screening, and STD treatment. Trump also banned aid for foreign NGOs that support abortion, among other necessary services, such as HIV testing, and affected thousands of people all around the world. Trump also had his eyes on two other targets – the Affordable Care Act and Roe v Wade. To dismantle them, however, he needed to have inside men in the Supreme Court. After nominating Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2019 and Amy Coney Barrett in 2020, he got one step closer to his goal. Barrett’s nomination was one final blow by the Trump administration. 

The decisive year is ahead of us, stretched out with possibilities. The void left behind by Ginsberg has been filled by another woman, but it was naive to assume that she would continue on the notorious reputation of RBG. As the legacy of one Justice closes, another opens, and so do the endless prospects of her career. As the Biden administration inches closer in turbulent times, our eyes will remain on Barrett, to see what legacy she chooses to leave behind for us. 


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