Wishing Ruth Bader Ginsburg a speedy recovery

Wishing Ruth Bader Ginsburg a speedy recovery
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Every time Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgMore Democrats than Republicans say Supreme Court key to 2020 vote Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Ginsburg discharged from hospital after nonsurgical procedure MORE is hospitalized, some of us hold our breath and worry. She has repeatedly vowed to stay on the court as long as her health holds up and she stays mentally sharp. News of a recurrence of cancer scares us, although she is promising not to quit.

At 87 years old, having endured four bouts of cancer, how will she endure more illness? The answer is, with the grace and energy she has always displayed.

But what if?

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Without Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, there would be a void, a vacuum and a visceral sense of loss for women, for progressives, for jurists and for Jews. R.B.G. — those are not just initials; they are iconic symbols of a woman of valor who makes history at every turn. She is “notorious” in the best sense of the word.

The first thing to remember is that Justice Ginsburg has often been the first — the first Jewish justice since the 1969 resignation of Justice Abe Fortas; the first Democratic appointment since 1967; the first to make gender equality a legal issue worthy of the highest court in the land. She was the first female member of the Harvard Law Review; and when she went to teach at Columbia University in 1972, she became the first female professor there to earn tenure.

The second important thing to know about R.B.G. is that women have advanced in the world because of her trailblazing work. We need to thank her for that.

“Women's rights are an essential part of the overall human rights agenda, trained on the equal dignity and ability to live in freedom all people should enjoy.” Those words by Ginsburg have animated her life and career, beginning with her work as general counsel for the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 1966 Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in the case United States v. Virginia holding that qualified women could not be denied admission to Virginia Military Institute. Ginsburg argued that if women were left out, everyone would be harmed: “If women are to be leaders in life and in the military, then men have got to become accustomed to taking commands from women,” she said at oral argument, “and men will not become accustomed if women are not let in.”

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By 1970, only three in 100 lawyers and fewer than 200 of the nation’s 10,000 judges were women. Ginsburg put her energies towards cases that extended the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause to protect the rights of women and other groups. In one of the earliest of Ginsburg’s anti-discrimination cases, Reed v. Reed (1971), she established that an Idaho law that gave preference to men over women in the administration of estates violated the equal-protection clause. Ginsburg called her victory in Reed “a small, guarded step.”

Ginsburg had hoped to bring to the Supreme Court another equal rights case called Struck v. Secretary of Defense. It involved Air Force Captain Susan Struck, who became pregnant and decided to have the baby against Air Force policy. Ginsburg prepared to argue Struck’s case on equal-protection grounds since no Air Force policy barred men from having children. But the Air Force changed its policy, and, in 1972, the case was dismissed.

R.B.G. first appeared before the Supreme Court in 1973 in the case Frontiero v. Richardson. She advocated for Sharron Frontiero, an Air Force lieutenant who had been denied benefits for her husband — benefits granted to men for their wives. “I ask no favor for my sex,” Ginsburg told the nine men on the bench, quoting the 19th century women’s-rights advocate Sarah Grimké. “All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” Ginsburg won, though the court’s holding was narrow.

But Ginsburg didn’t just fight for women’s rights; she fought for equal rights. In 1975 she stood before the Supreme Court to advocate on behalf of Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower who had been denied Social Security benefits after his wife died. Though a widow would have had an easy time collecting that money, he did not, because those were considered “mother’s benefits.” Ginsburg won the case in a unanimous ruling. Treating earnings as less or different because they were a woman’s and not a man’s became contrary to equal protection under the law.

Thirdly, Justice Ginsburg brings balance to the judicial system. President Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993, a time when the court really needed a liberal voice. From the bench, she later watched as President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE named two conservatives to the court.

But lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, leaving aside her recent decisions, her path-making choices and her balanced approach, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a woman with universal values of decency and fairness. When she was inducted into the National Museum of Jewish American History in 2019, R.B.G. said in her acceptance speech: “On the walls of my chambers at the Supreme Court, I have posted the command from Deuteronomy: Tzekek, Tzedek Tirdof – Justice, Justice Shall Thou Pursue. Those words are an ever-present reminder of what judges must do that they may thrive.”

Through films, documentaries and interviews, the world sees the funny, irreverent and ever-lively R.B.G. with her trademark white collar and large glasses. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the person we most want to be and have in public service. She’s the kind of woman we want our daughters and granddaughters to be — strong, smart and principled.

I want to live in a world of R.B.Gs. So today I am wishing her a speedy recovery and return to the bench.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of public diplomacy and public affairs and a Fellow at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.