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‘Extraordinarily self-centered’: As a Roe overthrow looms, RBG fans wrestle with his legacy

At 72 and having spent a career in power circles, Hunt isn’t exactly the target demographic for the Notorious RBG gear that became ubiquitous during Ginsburg’s belated emergence as the unlikely meme machine of the millennium. But over the years, she ended up with a few mugs featuring the women’s rights champion, who died in 2020.

Recently, however, Hunt decided she didn’t want to see them. As the Supreme Court is set to overturn Roe vs. Wade, Ginsburg’s decision not to step down under the Obama administration looms large in the estimation of some of his admirers, who see it as a possibility of destroying much of Ginsburg’s legacy. The unexpected – but not unpredictable – outcome was that Donald Trump was able to nominate Ginsburg’s successor, who could end up as the fifth vote to overturn the landmark 1973 abortion rights ruling.

“What I wanted to do was put it away. I thought, ‘I don’t want to look at it,’ Hunt said. “I want to put it away for my kids and my grandkids. It took work. I am 72 years old, and if there is something that upsets me, I want to get it out of my life. I didn’t want to see him again. It was too painful. I felt betrayed.

This constellation of emotions has become increasingly common since POLITICO reported last month of a stunning draft opinion. deer. Much of the melancholy is felt not by disappointed idealistic shoppers of lace-collared Halloween costumes or RBG fridge magnets, but by people who might have been peers in the justice system – good people. established in law, politics and public service, many of whom can sympathize with the complicated feelings involved in abandonment.

“It is certainly difficult for me, now, to think about her and her work – and not, these days, develop some degree of regret and anger,” says Dorothy Samuels, who wrote The New York Times‘ legal editorials during his 30 years on the journal’s editorial board. “It’s so multi-layered because she cared so passionately about advancing equality for all. She found a way to bring women into the constitution. And yet, what she contributed to give us is a tribunal that for a long, long time will overrule the equality rulings that she was a part of.

Samuels heard the same from former clerks and other inner circle members while researching a book in the years before Ginsburg’s death. “It was an extraordinarily self-centered thing to do.”

“She played,” says Michele Dauber, an outspoken Stanford law professor, of Ginsburg’s apparent calculation that Hillary Clinton would be in the White House to appoint her successor. “But she didn’t just play with herself. She played with the rights of my daughter and my granddaughter. And sadly, that’s his legacy. I think it’s tragic.

Anyone looking to hide from Ginsburg’s image will have a hard time. Nearly two years after his death, the capital and the country remain awash with Ginsburgiana: murals in New York, San Antonio, Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, San Jose and beyond; a US Navy ship; a hospital in New York; a new species of praying mantis. According to data from Bookscan, the sales of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik Notorious RBG — the ur-text of Ginsburg’s transformation from jurist to secular saint — seems unaffected by the power bomb.

Ditto the ubiquitous RBG merch. “We still have a bunch of stuff with his picture on it,” says Bradley Graham, owner of Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore. “A cup, a doll, a candle. Sales on this kind of ebb and flow, but we didn’t detect any particular drop. We still wear them and still sell them. We just heard some people say they’re mad at her.

The connection between Ginsburg’s status as a pop culture phenomenon and the choices she made regarding retirement, in fact, is now part of the posthumous finger pointing. Was the RBG cult one of the factors that made her stick around instead of retiring at a politically safe time?

“I heard, before and after her death, the argument that ‘Why did you make her this demigod? “I say, maybe someone made her a demigod, I didn’t make her a demigod. I consider her, I still consider her, a great person. This idea that if by raising it as an example, we have done this a disservice. I would say, a disservice to whom? »

The timeline doesn’t quite work either. Carmon and Knizhnik’s book didn’t come out until 2015 — when Obama was still president, but after the Democrats lost the Senate. The Tumblr he was based on was launched in 2013. But the first calls for Ginsburg to retire on grounds of safe replacement came before the 2012 election, by which time Justice had already gone through bouts of colon cancer. and pancreas. Those early calls for retirement were met with the same typically stubborn refusal by Ginsburg to heed people telling him to get out.

Yet Ginsburg’s singular cultural status today adds some potency to parts of the draft opinion where Judge Samuel Alito cites Ginsburg’s own publicly stated disagreements with Roe vs. Wade (she had issues with aspects of the judicial and political approach, not the outcome). The asides have enraged Ginsburg admirers, but also underscore something feminist justice critics have noted in recent weeks: that the focus on RBG obscures dozens of other colleagues in the movement — including those who may have gotten the better of her in some arguments.

“She was very smart and very smart and very energetic, but she wasn’t the only game in town,” says Linda Hirshman, the attorney and author of a dual biography of Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor.

Another thing the societal ardor for Ginsburg has done is make criticism of his picks heavier. In 2014, Erwin Chemerinsky, now dean of the University of California Law School, wrote a POLITICO column urging him to step down. “I received a very angry response, including indirectly (through others) from Judge Ginsburg,” he told me via email. Even with Dauber, who sent a number of caustic tweets about “RBG cult members” and the legacy of his choosing to stay.

“Her clerks, female law professors and women in society in general really felt that she was above criticism,” she says.

The fact is that the people who seek to blame the rollback on abortion rights have quite a long list of culprits before they get to Ginsburg: the judges who can write the decision, the presidents who appointed them, the Senate of GOP that blocked Barack Obama’s third term in office. nomination, the Democrats who failed to pass a national abortion rights bill despite having large majorities, the filibuster, the Electoral College and so on. You could even quote another judicial retirement decision: In 1991, Thurgood Marshall resigned, declaring himself “old and falling apart.” Marshall ended up living until four days after Bill Clinton’s inauguration – meaning that if he had somehow stuck around, Clarence Thomas might never have joined the Court to finally vote against deer.

“I find it very difficult to criticize Ruth Bader Ginsburg for any kind of sin against the women’s movement,” says Susan Estrich, the longtime Democratic lawyer and insider. “What we have to recognize is that she was there all those years, not that she sadly succumbed to the disease before she expected.”

“Before Ruth Ginsburg was ever in the field, she was a lawyer who helped teach America the meaning of equal protection and gender justice,” says Yale law professor Reva Siegel. , who says his desk contains a depiction of Ginsburg along with the words “may his memory be a revolution.” “Another way to understand her legacy is to look outside the Supreme Court of the United States today and see the future of reproductive justice unfolding in state legislatures and in state courts and in the streets where a new generation of Americans will give new constitutional provisions. expression of freedom and equality.

For Hirshman, whose coverage of Ginsburg was generally but not uniformly positive, the bigger issue than a person’s reckless choice is his or her view of why Ginsburg made the decision — a factor that concerns all sorts of gamers. Washington Today: The Age of Ginsburg. Hirshman, who is 78, believes the judiciary has lost its “connection with the existing zeitgeist” in the country. Someone more in touch, she says, would have had a better understanding of her opponents’ radicalism and willingness to break old standards.

“That’s a very tough question – should people be bawling that it’s all Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fault?” she says. “The more interesting question is how did we get to this point where all these older people are making these decisions? I’m not saying that having only people in their 50s and 60s guarantees a good outcome. I’m just saying it increases the odds… You really don’t want to gamble with the fate of the most powerful democratic republic in the world.

In retrospect, says Hirshman, taking a bet against actuarial odds will lead to undoing much of Ginsburg’s work. In other words, not taking that gamble might have helped preserve that legacy: “Retirement might have made her more important than all the decisions she wrote to the Supreme Court.”


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