Justice Ginsburg's life was built on character

Justice Ginsburg's life was built on character

Baseball gives us a way to appreciate Ruth Bader GinsburgRuth Bader GinsburgWhat would Justice Ginsburg say? Her words now part of the fight over pronouns Supreme Court low on political standing To infinity and beyond: What will it take to create a diverse and representative judiciary? MORE’s life and legacy. She was Jackie Robinson at the beginning of her career and Lou Gehrig at the end.

When Robinson, the first Black player in Major League Baseball, took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, he was greeted by racist boos and catcalls. When Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School in 1956, the dean asked her and the other eight women in her class to justify why they were taking seats that would otherwise go to men, and a law school employee told her that women could not enter a room in the library in which she needed to do research.

Even though she graduated tied for first in her class at Columbia Law School (to which she had transferred when her husband took a job in New York City), Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter refused to interview her for a clerkship because, as he told one of Ginsburg’s professors, he was not ready to hire a woman. No New York City law firm offered her a job after graduation, but she managed to begin her career with a federal district court clerkship.  


Jackie Robinson played brilliantly, despite the vicious booing, and opened the door to the major leagues for other Black baseball players. Ginsburg argued gender-discrimination cases in the Supreme Court that persuaded an all-male, mostly white bench to hold that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to discrimination based on sex and not just race.  Women in the workplace, in Congress, in executive suites, on presidential tickets and elsewhere owe a lot to Ginsburg.

In 1993 she became the second female Supreme Court justice in American history. She wrote the majority opinion in a case striking down the Virginia Military Institute’s men-only admissions policy, and went where no Supreme Court justice has ever gone, to pop culture icon status as the “Notorious R.B.G.” a play on the late rapper, The Notorious B.I.G.

Then came the Lou Gehrig phase of her life. In 1999, she had surgery for early-stage colon cancer; ten years later, it was surgery for pancreatic cancer; and in 2018 she had surgery to remove cancerous growths from her left lung (and that’s only a partial list of her health struggles). Through it all she did the demanding work of a Supreme Court justice without faltering or self-pity. She did not miss an oral argument until her 2018 surgery and even then worked from her hospital bed while recovering. She seemed unbreakable despite her medical issues. 

Gehrig, known as the Iron Horse, played in 2,130 consecutive games (a record that held for more than half-a-century). He struggled in the 1938 season and the following season learned why. He had an incurable disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, now known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He retired, telling a packed Yankee Stadium that he was “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” Gehrig died two years later

Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not retire. She did not want to leave her Supreme Court seat, and much of her legacy on the court, in the hands of President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE. In 2016, she said, “I can’t imagine what the country would be – with Donald Trump as our president. For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be — I don’t even want to contemplate that.” She told her granddaughter just before her death that her “most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”  


So, she tried to gut it out, to get to January, when hopefully there would be a different president to nominate her successor. She was 87 when she died just a few months short of her goal.   

We don’t only celebrate Jackie Robinson and Lou Gehrig because they were such accomplished baseball players. We celebrate them for the way in which they handled adversity, Robinson by courageously refusing to be race-baited, Gehrig by his grace in the face of a horrible illness.

So too with Ginsburg, who was a brilliant lawyer and Supreme Court justice, but had something more. It made her truly great, and it’s the reason she will triumph over Donald Trump in how American history remembers her and remembers him. 

Like Robinson and Gehrig, what Ruth Bader Ginsburg had was character, character, character. 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm:  Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.