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Justice Ginsburg leaves a legacy of fighting for equal rights

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a position she held for 27 years. Marcia Coyle, Chief Washington Correspondent for The National Law Journal and Amy Howe, Co-Founder of SCOTUSblog joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss Justice Ginsburg’s long storied career and her fight for equal rights.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on Justice Ginsburg and what comes next at the court, I spoke with Marcia Coyle, Chief Washington Correspondent for The National Law Journal and Amy Howe, Co-Founder of SCOTUSblog.

    Marcia Coyle, I want to start with you. How significant was Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court as we know it, at least in the modern era?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, I think that she's been very significant, even though she has often been in dissent. Her dissents have been very powerful. She also wrote some very important majority opinions.

    And you probably remember, Hari, her opinion at the Virginia Military Institute in which she led the court's majority in striking down the male only policy at the military institute. And so I think that she was quite a towering figure in many and in many respects and important to the Supreme Court.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amy Howe, when you were writing the obituary for her and look back at her legacy, you focused on some of those cases that she tried as a lawyer and how important they were in front of the court.

  • Amy Howe:

    Yes. And she had really a remarkable strategy. Many of the plaintiffs in the cases that she brought to the Supreme Court as a young lawyer in the 1970s were actually men. And that was not an accident. She wanted to appeal to the judges and the justices, many of whom are most of whom at that time were men, and to have them see that many of the laws that she believed harmed women were based on the idea of placing women on a pedestal. But they actually affected men and children.

    And so one of the cases, for example, was a case in which she represented a man who'd been widowed, left with an infant son, and he wanted to stay home to take care of his his infant son. And if he'd been a woman, he would have been able to receive Social Security benefits to do that. But because he was a man, the law wouldn't provide him with Social Security benefits. And so Justice Ginsburg, then Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a lawyer for the ACLU, took the case to the Supreme Court and changed that.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    She also served as a reminder to the other justices on the bench of how the work world really operated. And there was the case, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay case, in which even though she lost that case in dissent, she called basically called on Congress to deal with this situation since the Supreme Court would not. And Congress did respond. And it was the first law that President Obama signed, the first legislation that President Obama signed into law. So even in dissent, she had a powerful influence.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amy, I want to ask you, in the now we have Justice Kagan. We have Justice Sotomayor. Before it was Bader Ginsburg, we had Sandra Day O'Connor. What does she add into this mix?

  • Amy Howe:

    She often talked about how Justice O'Connor, sort of the mentor may have been a strong word, but really sort of helped her along when she arrived on the bench. And, you know, when she was assigned her first opinion, frequently, the first opinion for a new justice is a relatively straightforward one. But Justice Ginsburg thought it was a relatively complicated one. And Justice O'Connor, who is, you know, really just sort of no-nonsense, said to her, just just get it done, Ruth, before the he assigns you the next opinion. And I think she tried to carry that forward with the new female justices trying to sort of help them get settled in.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What was she like on the bench? What did she add to the questioning process?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    She was very straightforward, matter of fact. She was often the first justice to ask a question, although Justice Sotomayor, I think, has surpassed her in that. But she was a very articulate, very pointed.

    She also was a bear about cases following the rules that they got to the court the way they were supposed to get to the court. And if there was a problem with those rules not being followed, she would hunt it down immediately.

    She really used what we call civil procedure law. So she she she was very straightforward, very respectful of other lawyers and also her colleagues on the bench. She didn't interrupt much and she didn't ask that many questions. But the ones she asked were very concise and to the point.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What should we be looking for? Amy, I'll start with you, in someone, there might not be anybody that can fill her shoes, but someone that takes that place.

  • Amy Howe:

    It's going to be a really interesting process. I would expect the president to nominate someone quite quickly. And he had suggested after the Kavanaugh nomination that he had been saving, Amy Coney Barrett of the 7th Circuit for the Justice Ginsburg seat, if it were to become available while he was the president.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Hari, I think last night there was a lot written about her dying wish that she had said that her dying wish was that her seat not be filled till after the election. And many people might take that as a slap at President Donald Trump.

    But the way I look at it is something she said back in 2011 in an interview. What she most cares about and she thought her colleagues most cared about was maintaining the Supreme Court as an institution that was not a political branch of government that it not be viewed as a partisan institution. And asking that her seat not be filled until after the election, I think was her way of saying, please, you know, let's not get into a huge partisan fight over this, let's wait until after the election and the partisan election dust has settled a bit and then go forward.

    And she also often spoke in interviews about her desire that the Senate and the two political parties in the Senate find a way to lower the temperature of Supreme Court confirmations in particular and to remind people that when she was nominated. she was a very liberal nominee who had worked for the ACLU, was confirmed by a vote of 96-3 whether that could happen again today seems unlikely but still, I think that's what she meant by her dying wish that to avoid the truly partisan dog fight.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal, Amy Howe of the SCOTUSblog, thank you both.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Pleasure, Hari.

  • Amy Howe:

    Thanks for inviting me.

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