I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, but the long-seated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. She passed away on Sept. 18 and immediately reinvigorated a partisan conflict that’s been brewing for the past four years. Her body hadn’t even been cold, and people were already in an uproar about what the proceeding replacement would look like. Sentiments over former President Barack Obama’s appointee, Justice Merrick Garland, come to mind as the Republicans seek to fill the vacancy in the weeks before the election. I don’t really want to talk about that, though. I never expected Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, to actually have any decency and follow through with his dissent, anyway. Politics is a game, after all, and the rest is just for show.
I want to talk about what RBG means to many people. Her influence in American politics cannot be understated — a champion of women’s rights. I won’t try and take that away from her. But there are many instances where RBG has ruled in a fashion many would say to be, well, problematic. Her history isn’t clean. I’m not trying to urinate on the fresh grave of such a prolific figure. She’s not Margaret Thatcher, after all. I take contention with the unquestioning faith in the most iconic figures of the American left. Being unable to criticize such consequential figures is something I take contention with. Let’s take a holistic look at Ginsburg, her legacy and what it all means to me and many other people.
I’ll start with the good. It’s irrefutable she’s had a positive impact on women’s rights in this country. Ginsburg was one of nine women at Harvard Law when she enrolled in 1956, later transferring to Columbia to graduate in 1959. She was undoubtedly a trailblazer in this right and helped paved the way for many other women to follow suit. Soon after, RBG volunteered with the American Civil Liberties Union and co-founded the Women’s Rights Project which started her career as a champion of gender equality right out of the gate. The Women’s Rights Project went on to challenge bias in government, including things like treatment of men and women in the military and unequal treatment in state jurisdictions.
On the bench in the Supreme Court, she ruled in favor of the rights of disabled Americans, arguing for the rights of two neurodivergent women that had been trapped in a psychiatric ward without their consent. Even in the dissenting opinion, RBG made her perspectives known and her stance clear. In 2007, the case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. reiterated the rights of corporations to pay their workers unequal wages in equal positions. RBG wrote the dissent, reading on the bench (an uncommon practice) about her objections to the ruling and her aversion to the obvious sexism within it. “In our view, the court does not comprehend, or is indifferent to, the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” Ginsberg said in her dissenting opinion. Ginsburg’s fight for equal rights cannot be understated.
But with such a long and expansive career, there is always going to be some bad. RBG has had some speed bumps, and it would be foolish to completely ignore them. Many critics that actually have something to say, rather than vapid political squabbles, mention her record on things like criminal justice and tribal law. Her record has been less than consistent when it comes to the rights of felons. In Overton v. Bazezza (2003), she ruled in favor of a decision that upheld a Michigan prison’s right to bar visitation to those with instances of substance abuse. In Porter v. Nussle, she authored the majority opinion which determined “No action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions … until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted” before trying to file for abuse in court. Doesn’t help much when the prison system is already labyrinthian and notoriously terrible in terms of prisoner rights and guard accountability.
Another point of contention that many people like myself have with her is her controversial rulings regarding treaty rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples. City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York (2005) is a sore thumb that sticks out in this regard. The Oneida Nation repurchased lands privately that were once part of their reservation and claimed sovereignty over the land following the purchase. RBG wrote the majority opinion that dismissed their claims. In addition to that, there’s United States v. Navajo Nation, (2003) where RBG struck down a whopping $600 million compensation following a breach of contract against the Navajo Nation.
Don’t think I’m trying to play to the whim of the people who drag Ginsburg down for the hell of it, for political gain. I appreciate and understand the strides she’s made for gender equality across the board. However, I have objections to idolatry: RBG has been glorified as someone worthy of unequivocal praise and not worth examining further. I don’t think that’s helpful. I don’t think the answer to the conniving and slimy politicians that seek to engage in hypocrisy with an appointment so soon after Ginsburg’s death is to deify her.
A problem I have with the American left is their eagerness to ignore their own flaws. In order to be stronger, and to accept nothing but what’s right, we need to be able to acknowledge the flaws in our most lauded figures. Ginsburg had her faults, and as people who strive for a better world we need to be able to recognize that and work toward something better, for something more satisfactory. I’m tired of this banal level of acceptance from our rulers in this country. Women achieving success is always cool, but the “#girlboss” attitude of ignoring injustice in favor of symbolic victory is nearly just as harmful as flat out ignoring our problems. Ginsburg did so much good, but she was by no means the end of what we should ask from justices. Never accept anything less than justice. It’s in the position’s title, right?
Sam Fogel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.