Professors discuss Ginsburg’s legacy

Corryn Brock and Elizabeth Taylor

Eastern political science professors discussed the life, career and death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg after she died of complications of her metastatic cancer of the pancreas Friday afternoon.

Ginsburg became a Supreme Court justice in 1993 after being nominated by President Bill Clinton.

At the time she was only the second woman to be named a judge in the United States’ highest court.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said in a statement that the nation lost a hero with the death of Ginsburg.

“Tonight we are devastated, but tomorrow we will roll up our sleeves and keep working,” Duckworth said. “We must honor her legacy by redoubling our efforts to safeguard the rights of women, the rights of Americans with disabilities and the rights of all Americans for future generations. We cannot let up now.”

U.S Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) said he hopes that Ginsburg’s dying wish is honored.

“Please remember Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s demand that Supreme Court vacancies go unfilled during a presidential election year, which was also Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish,” Durbin said. “Senator McConnell pleaded with us to let the voters have the last word. Every member of the Senate should be asked to commit to the McConnell Rule.”

Ginsburg is known as a feminist icon and leader in many civil rights issues in the country.

To Karen Swenson, a constitutional law and judicial politics professor and lawyer, she was an inspiration for women fighting against gender discrimination.

“Women have come a long way due to the struggles of pathbreakers like RBG. I bear this in mind as I pursued a legal education and a career in the law. She was a fighter for women’s rights as a lawyer and this helped her gain notice to be appointed to the federal bench and then promoted to a seat on the high court. She used innovative approaches to achieve legal change for the status of women. She did this as a lawyer and a justice. She was a liberal torchbearer in other areas of the law as well, especially civil rights,” Swenson said. “Her bold style has earned her the adoration of even young people like my students.”

Ryan Burge, an associate professor of political science and graduate coordinator, said Ginsburg was an icon in the United States and fought discrimination to earn her accomplishments throughout her career.

“She was sort of an icon of the liberal left of America for a lot of young progressive people, especially young female liberals she was really a hero because she was the second female Supreme Court justices we’ve had and she came up and she was Jewish, a woman and she had kids,” Burge said. “She had three strikes against her whenever she got into the legal profession, so she was aberration in a lot of ways for her time and she was a trailblazer.

Burge added that she often centered the Supreme Court.

“I know that a lot of women looked up to her and sort of saw her as one of the ways the Supreme Court is more moderate, she pulled it back to the center when there were a lot of center-right justices so I think that’s sort of how most people would look at her,” Burge said.

Erin Rowland, a political science professor, said as someone who has worked with individuals with disabilities, she thinks it is important to focus on Ginsburg’s impact in that community as well.

“I’ve worked a lot with people who had physical or mental disabilities and I think that sometimes we forget those individuals along the way with our fights for equal rights and I think that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is also very important to them,” Rowland said. “She really paved the way for them to not be discriminated against either.”

Rowland said she did not hear much about Ginsburg growing up, though she felt she should.

“I come from an area and a family that was very right wing, so there wasn’t a whole lot of talk about liberal appointees to the court, it was always ‘Who are the conservative appointees,’” Rowland said. “I think that that was a real tragedy, because she did so much for women’s rights over the years.”

As a new mother, Rowland said Ginsburg’s early career struggles are inspiring to women in the workplace.

“She managed to make it through Harvard law school while her husband was battling testicular cancer, she was helping him with his own law studies, she had children and then she even transferred to Columbia to finish up there. She was first in her class at Harvard and at Columbia, and you still have her children who talked about what a good mom she was,” Rowland. “Even with all those accomplishments, she went out on the job market and wasn’t getting hired.”

Kevin Anderson, a political science professor who teaches American government, political theory and African American politics, said Ginsburg saw the big picture in the cases she ruled on.

“You could always count on her to take the case and point to its broader impact, in terms of ‘well this is bigger than the two parties, this may affect women, this may affect immigrants, this may affect children,’” Anderson said. “I think this is one of the things that people who are really mourning her are talking about.”

Anderson said Ginsburg gave everyone an equal voice.

“Legally I think her legacy is going to center around the fact that she very much was an advocate for equality, just across the board,” Anderson said. “That regardless of your station in life, your religious affiliation, whatever, that every person who came before the court needed an equal opportunity to state their case.”

“To see the pattern of that in a life is really remarkable,” Anderson said.

Ginsburg’s life left a large impact on the country but her death leaves uncertainty.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), has announced that U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee will receive a vote in the Senate.

Many have expressed concern with this choice as McConnell refused to allow a vote for former President Barrack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace Antonin Scalia’s seat after his death in February of 2016.

Some have said they find it hypocritical that McConnell intends to allow a vote while others say the situations are not comparable for varying differences between the two circumstances.

Burge said he believes McConnell’s current actions are reflective of his career.

“Mitch McConnell has made it clear throughout his entire career that he cares about power and winning. I don’t think that’s a controversial reading of his life, that’s just the way he approaches things,” Burge said. “His guiding principle is if you win you do what you can and if you lose you try to win and so his party is going to try to put through a justice.”

Burge said he discussed a very similar potential situation to the one the country is in currently.

He said the country is built on standards of behavior and action that are passed down throughout the years.

“I was on a podcast a few months ago and they asked me what was my ‘black swan moment,’ just something that comes out of nowhere and sort of changes everything about the election and I said Ruth Bader Ginsburg dying on Thanksgiving Day would be my moment in terms of American democracy sort of falling apart because a lot of the way our system works is on norms,” Burge said.

“For a long time, government worked that way, it was a lot of handshake agreements and ‘we won’t do this if you don’t do this to us’ and vice versa so that sort of fell apart though with the death of Antonin Scalia in 2016,” Burge said.

Burge said what McConnell plans to do is legally sound however it goes against traditions long held in American politics.

“Legally they absolutely can do that, there’s nothing in the laws or statutes that say they cannot do what they intend to do, but from a norms standpoint, objectively, I think what they are doing is a violation of everything the democracy stands for which is do unto others as you would have them do unto you or when you have the power don’t abuse it in such a way that then you’re abused when you’re out of power and I think that that is the issue we’re seeing right now,” Burge said.

Anderson said he does not believe a new justice will be seated by election day.

“This is a very complicated process and you’ve already had two republican senators say that this isn’t a good idea. I don’t think this will get done before the presidential election,” Anderson said. “You have a number of republicans who are up for reelection and casting a vote on a Supreme Court nominee this close to the election can be really damaging if you’re in a tight race.”

He added he believes a nomination will come this week and the process of approving the nominee will begin, but once election day comes he believes there will be a fight in the Senate over the seat.

Anderson said regardless of how the future looks, it will not be like something the country has seen in the past.

Burge said he can see several scenario’s playing out in the coming days but that it is a constantly changing situation that is hard to predict.

Burge said as of now he can see two main scenarios; Trump nominates a candidate who is confirmed, Biden wins and it becomes a tit for tat where Democrats fire back as an equalizer or a few republican senators choose to not confirm the nomination until a new congress is seated and “put the pin back in the grenade of democracy.”

He said he could also see a group of moderate senators coming up with a neutral list of candidates to present to Trump and agree to confirm the nominee if it was someone they mutually agreed upon.

“That would be a sign of ‘wow democracy is not absolutely a dumpster fire right now, it actually works it some kind of meaningful way,’” Burge said.

Burge said in his mind the worst possible outcome is McConnell pushing a new justice through before the winner of the 2020 election inaugurated and the new senate is seated.

“Then the Democrats really have no reason to not go great guns and just be as mean to the Republicans as the Republicans have been to them,” Burge said. “I think it destroys trust in democracy, because democracy runs on the good will of the people and on compromise.”

However, Burge said he sees flaws in the Democratic Party’s response to the Republican Party’s choices.

“The Republican Party clearly says ‘I’m going to keep punching you in the mouth until you punch us back in the mouth’ and if I was a Democrat, and I don’t know if I am or not, I would say ‘yeah if they punch us in the mouth let’s punch them back twice and let’s keep punching, and keep punching and keep punching and keep punching.’ Which is great for the Democratic Party and liberal causes but it’s terrible for American Democracy and world democracy because we are seen as sort of a beacon of democracy as the oldest functioning democracy on Earth right now,” Burge said. “So, if we can’t figure it out that doesn’t give a lot of hope to these struggling democracies in third world countries trying to figure out democracy for themselves.”

“The Founding Fathers were terrified by guys like Mitch McConnell, guys who just care about power. That’s literally the thing they wrote about the most in the Federalist Papers,” Burge said. “Ambition must counteract ambition but at some point we have to look at the good of the country over the good of the party and it doesn’t seem like the current Republican party feels that way and the Democrats to their credit or to their detriment have wanted to play by the rules for a long time and I think it’s actually hurt them from a pure power and outcome standpoint.”

Burge said the country needs someone to stand for doing the “right thing.”

“We are in the most perilous spot in American Democracy in my lifetime right now because the fabric that holds us together is now fraying and shredding and we need adults in the room, in the Senate, to basically stand up and say ‘listen I know what we can do but I know what we’re going to do, I know what we should do, and that’s do the right thing,’” Burge said. “Everyone knows what the right thing is, Mitch McConnell knows what the right thing is, Lindsey Graham knows what the right thing is, President Trump probably doesn’t know what the right thing is but everyone there knows what the right thing to do is and I need people to say ‘I don’t care what the right thing is, what benefits me or my party, I need to think about what benefits the country.’”

Burge said it is possible that Republicans could move to fill the seat and lose the election, but have a right-leaning judge for upwards of 40 years.

He added he could see impeachment proceedings being used as a way to stall the nominee being confirmed.

Burge said he is expecting a lot of changes to what can be expected from the federal government.

Rowland said the situation did not shock her.

“It didn’t surprise me that a lot of Republican senators have now backtracked on their words, the statements they made during the last year of Obama’s term where they said ‘hey its right at the end of his term, it’s not time to put a new justice in office’ and now they’re trying to rush the approval of one,” Rowland said. “To me, its partisan politics as usual.”

However, she said she is expecting some surprises as the nomination process unfolds.

“I think you’re going to see enough people break ranks to where it doesn’t happen,” Rowland said.

Ginsburg’s granddaughter said when Ginsburg was close to death, she expressed wishes that her seat not be filled by Trump.

Swenson said she shared in those wishes.

“As a person who is a partisan myself I share her wishes that she could of be replaced by a president other than President Trump, so it is a tragedy for her that she couldn’t make that happen and that those wishes that she may have had will not be respected by the people in power.”

Burge said he hopes the uncertainty following her death does not overshadow her life, but her death has added a new layer to her legacy.

“I don’t what to discredit her death or minimize her death and the loss to her family and the legal community and the women who looked up to her but I think her legacy is going to be two-fold and it’s going to be what she did when she was a jurist and then what happens to her seat after her death, and I think that that second piece might end up being as consequential as her life was if not more so depending on what happens over the next three or four months in terms of replacing her,” Burge said.

Burge said he believes she will be remembered for taking the side of the underdog in cases.

“I think she’s going to be seen as sort of a liberal lion of the court. She was there for a long time and she was willing to stand up for herself, she was willing to stand up for women’s rights, minorities rights, she was always willing to stand up for the other. I think that’s really what she’s known for, she was a person who stood up for the other,” Burge said. “She made the court bigger in that way.”

“She really was putting this idea of equality in our face,” Burge said.

Burge said his favorite quote of Ginsburg’s is:

“When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

He said the quote shows inequality that is often not thought of.

“We don’t have equality until women have exactly the same access and opportunities that men have at all levels, including the highest court in the land,” Burge said.

Swenson said the Ginsburg’s story shows that the discrimination many think is from a long time ago is closer than it is thought to be.

“I’ve always been inspired by hearing women who are alive talk about the active discrimination they have had to struggle with to get where they are, it really strikes me how this is not a relic of the distant past, this happened in these people’s lives,” Swenson said. “Many of these women have had to take nontraditional courses to get where they are but they’ve still managed to get to the top as far as being appointed to high courts, so I guess it’s shown me not to take it for granted that you’re even able to get a law degree or have a successful career.”

Swenson said she believes Ginsburg will continue to be an icon because of the way she carried herself in life.

“I think it’s because she is so bold, she will take a position that is diametrically opposed to her conservative brethren and she will dissent, and she has a special collar she puts on when she dissents, and she’ll speak her dissent from the bench and I do think people respect her for not shying away from being a partisan,” Swenson said. “She has led an extraordinary life, any of us should be so lucky to have done half of what she did.”


Corryn Brock and Elizabeth Taylor can be reached 581-2812 or [email protected]