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'An American hero': Tributes paid to women’s rights champion Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The US justice died from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

US SUPREME COURT Justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday, opening a crucial vacancy on the high court expected to set off a pitched political battle at the peak of the presidential campaign. 

Affectionately known as the Notorious RBG, the 87-year-old Ginsburg was the oldest of nine Supreme Court justices.

She died after a fight with pancreatic cancer, the court announced, saying she passed away “surrounded by her family at her home in Washington, DC.”

Coming just 46 days before an election in which President Donald Trump lags his Democratic rival Joe Biden in the polls, the vacancy offers the Republican a chance to lock in a conservative majority at the court for decades to come.

Trump – who was told of Ginsburg’s passing while on the campaign trail – issued a statement praising her as a “titan of the law,” but gave no indication whether he intended to press ahead with a nomination.

Accolades flowed in for the pioneering Jewish justice.

“Our Nation has lost a jurist of historic stature,” said Chief Justice John Roberts.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama said in a tweet that Ginsburg “fought to the end, through her cancer, with unwavering faith in our democracy and its ideals.”

Joe Biden, said she was “an American hero, a giant of legal doctrine, and a relentless voice in the pursuit of that highest American ideal: Equal Justice Under Law.”

Former president Jimmy Carter called her a “beacon of justice”, while Hillary Clinton thanked her for paving the way for “so many women.”

In Washington, hundreds of tearful mourners headed to lay flowers and light candles in front of the Supreme Court, where the diminutive Ginsburg sat for 27 years, even taking arguments and issuing opinions from her hospital bed after repeated bouts of illness over the past two years.

Ginsburg anchored the court’s liberal faction, whittled to four by two Trump appointments since 2017.

The appointment of a sixth conservative justice could lead to a court that would potentially remove abortion rights, strengthen the powers of business, and water down rights provided to minorities and the LGBTQ community over the past three decades.

Within minutes of the news of her death, the enormous political battle had begun - with Biden warning Trump had no right to name a successor so close to the 3 November election.

Democrats are expected to fight tough to force a delay – an uphill battle given the control Republicans have on the Senate, which must approve any nominee.

 ’An amazing life’

ruth-bader-ginsburg-is-sworn-in-as-associate-justice-of-the-united-states-supreme-court Ruth Bader Ginsburg sworn-in by Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist, right, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC on 10 August 1993. Source: Arnie Sachs/PA

Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ginsburg was a law school star when women didn’t study law, and a law professor with a powerful impact on the establishment of rights for women and minorities.

She died on the evening that marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. According to tradition, those who die during the holiday are revered as a “tzaddik,” or a person of great righteousness.

Her stature on the court and the death of her husband in 2010 probably contributed to Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the bench beyond the goal she initially set for herself, to match Justice Louis Brandeis’s 22 years on the court and his retirement at the age of 82.

Ginsburg had special affection for Brandeis, the first Jew named to the high court. She was the court’s second woman and its sixth Jewish justice, but in time was joined by two other Jews, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, and two other women, Ms Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Both developments were perhaps unthinkable when Ginsburg graduated from law school in 1959 and faced the triple bogey of looking for work as a woman, a mother and a Jew.

news-ruth-bader-ginsburg Ginsburg testifies at her confirmation hearing after being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton., 1993. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Forty years later, she noted that religion had become irrelevant in the selection of high-court justices and that gender was heading in the same direction, though when asked how many women would be enough for the high court, Ms Ginsburg replied without hesitation, “Nine”.

She could take some credit for equality of the sexes in the law. In the 1970s, she argued six key cases before the court when she was an architect of the women’s rights movement, and won five.

“Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not need a seat on the Supreme Court to earn her place in the American history books,” President Bill Clinton said in 1993 when he announced her appointment. “She has already done that.”

Her time as a justice was marked by triumphs for equality for women, as in her opinion for the court ordering the Virginia Military Institute to accept women or give up its state funding.

There were setbacks, too. She dissented forcefully from the court’s decision in 2007 to uphold a nationwide ban on an abortion procedure that opponents call partial-birth abortion.

The “alarming” ruling, Ms Ginsburg said, “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives”.

The justice once said that she had not entered the law as a champion of equal rights. “I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other,” she wrote. “I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyse problems clearly.”

Besides civil rights, Ginsburg took an interest in capital punishment, voting repeatedly to limit its use. During her tenure, the court declared it unconstitutional for states to execute the intellectually disabled and killers younger than 18.

She voted most often with the other liberal-leaning justices, fellow Clinton appointee Mr Breyer and two Republican appointees, John Paul Stevens and David Souter, then later with President Barack Obama’s two appointees, Ms Sotomayor and Ms Kagan.

“Hope springs eternal,” she said in 2007, “and when I am writing a dissent, I’m always hoping for that fifth or sixth vote — even though I’m disappointed more often than not.”

supreme-court-obit-ginsburg People gathered at the Supreme Court in Washington last night after the Supreme Court announced the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Source: Alex Brandon/PA

Election issue

Trump, campaigning in Minnesota, was on stage at a rally when the news broke, and was informed of her passing by reporters after his speech.

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“She just died? Wow. I didn’t know that,” he said. “Whether you agreed or not, she was an amazing woman who led an amazing life.”

He later issued a formal statement in her honour, as the White House and Congress lowered flags to half-staff.

Ginsburg’s death gives Trump the opportunity to tilt the court to the right, potentially for decades, with media reporting that a new nominee could be quick.

But it also has the potential to mobilize voters on the Democratic side.

Trump himself said in August he would have no qualms about naming a new justice so close to the election, and last week unveiled 20 names of possible choices, all deeply conservative.

Drawing a line in the sand on Friday, Biden warned: “The voters should pick the president, and the president should pick the justice for the Senate to consider.”

“This was the position the Republican Senate took in 2016 when they were almost 10 months to go before the election. That’s the position the United States Senate must take today.”

Biden was referring to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision in 2016, in Obama’s last year in office, to block the president’s court nominee so that Trump could name his own the following year.

But in a statement Friday, McConnell rejected the notion he had set a precedent.

“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said.

The stakes are extremely high, according to Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“The political fight will be huge because appointing a very conservative person will make this the most conservative court in a century,” he said.

Ginsburg herself was acutely aware of the stakes of her health on the court balance, and her fans fretted at her increasingly frequent trips to the hospital over the past two years.

According to NPR radio, Ginsburg raised the issue this week with her granddaughter Clara Spera.

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” she said.

- With reporting from PA

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