This news is the only news they all feared here. Not that 2020 has been a particularly good year so far. But clearly it could get worse. Hundreds of people sit and stand before the Supreme Court in Washington – young women and men, whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, gays, straight men – trying to process what they have just learned.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead, the champion for equality, the Supreme Court judge, the 87-year-old tough woman with the mischievous smile who outsmarts cancer one after another. She wanted to hold out until the presidential election because she knew what it was about. Now she has not made it.
When the breaking news of her death appears on smartphones shortly before 8 p.m. on Friday evening, the Washingtoners have already prepared for the weekend. The outdoor areas of the restaurants and bars are filled to the last seat and the temperatures are still pleasant.
They sing “Amazing Grace”
Then the news spreads very quickly, someone posts a video on Twitter, of the Supreme Court and people who spontaneously gathered on the white marble steps. More and more people come together there, they bring flowers and candles. Eventually hundreds will wait until well after midnight amid the flags hanging half mast in front of the courthouse.
There is no planned program, everything is spontaneous and very calm. Everyone is there to pay tribute to an idol. A small group of young women sing in the dark “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s anthem for the US peace movement, alongside John Lennon’s “Imagine”, others join in.
And then they sing “Amazing Grace,” the unofficial national anthem of the United States. The candles in their hands illuminate their faces. There are goosebumps moments.
At the bottom of the stairs, two young men wave rainbow flags. At the very top, a man stands between the pillars and holds up a large sign that only says “Notorious”.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, nicknamed “Notorious RBG” (infamous RBG), Supreme Court judge from 1993, was honored like no other judge in America’s liberal capital. You can see her face all over the city, as a large mural, on coffee cups or on advertising banners.
She owes her nickname to the blog of a law student who was impressed by the intrepid posts with which Ginsburg regularly documented her minority position in the increasingly conservative court for the public.
Mourning Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Supreme Court Photo: Reuters / Al Drago
A role model especially for young women
RBG was a role model, especially for young women, as she questioned her life as to why she should be given fewer opportunities than a man. And she did so with great success. But with Donald Trump’s election victory in 2016, the liberal judge has also become a bulwark against a fresh shift to the right by the Supreme Court.
SuperMe justices are elected for life by the Senate on the recommendation of the respective US president. If they don’t give themselves up, there are hardly any ways to get them out of their office.
RBG was appointed in 1993 by then President Bill Clinton. Representing the liberal wing in the nine-member body, she made sure that the Supreme Court’s rulings were repeatedly surprising.
But RBG was also sick with cancer years ago, most recently she fought pancreatic cancer. The major concern was that the increasingly vulnerable-looking old lady would leave, giving Trump the opportunity to appoint a chief justice for the third time in his tenure (after Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh).
It would be Trump’s chance to bolster the conservative majority at court that is so important to the coexistence of Americans for decades. A success his followers long for, for example to tighten the abortion law or to ensure that no one can interfere with their constitutional right to bear a weapon.
RBG worked to the end
RBG did not leave voluntarily, she worked to the end. Just as she announced. But she hasn’t achieved her big goal anyway. 46 days before the presidential election, her death threatens to turn the entire election campaign upside down.
The Republican majority leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, was determined to vote her successor shortly after the announcement of her death despite the impending election date. “The candidate nominated by President Trump will be given a vote in the United States Senate,” he said. Republicans hold a majority of 53 of the 100 seats in the Senate.
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It was Republicans led by McConnell who blocked a Supreme Court candidate nominated by then-Democratic President Barack Obama from the Senate in 2016 – including in relation to the upcoming presidential election.
McConnell doesn’t seem to care anymore: There will be elections in 45 days, the Republicans and their president are currently lagging behind in the polls – there is an opportunity to mobilize your own supporters as requested. Trump would already have a “shortlist” of the names of candidates he likes, including at least one woman, the New York Times reports. He will present this list “sooner than later”.
The president does not comment at first
When news of Ginsburg’s death got out, the president was on a stage in Bemidji, Minnesota, delivering one of his sprawling, polemic speeches that caused a storm of enthusiasm among his fans. Reportedly, the information has not reached him before. In any case, he leaves nothing to criticize, even if he speaks briefly about the importance of the Supreme Court. But he actually always does that in his rallies. His followers like the right question, he knows that.
Only after his speech is he approached by journalists and only explains in a first reaction that Ginsburg has had an “impressive life”.
Shortly thereafter, the White House issued a statement recognizing her as the “titan of law” who “inspired all Americans and generations of great legal thinkers.” For the first time, there is no question of whether he will propose a successor to the Senate in his current tenure, which runs until January 20, or even before the presidential election on November 3. However, he only said in a radio interview in August that he would “certainly” take the opportunity if it presents itself.
That is exactly what the opposition fears, which is why warnings of the imminent major conflict are mixed with reports of mourning. Trump’s opponent Joe Biden tries to admonish it: “Undoubtedly, voters should elect the president, and the president should propose the judge to the Senate.”
Ginsburg also speaks out more or less posthumously. As her granddaughter Clara Spera told radio station NPR, RBG stated shortly before her death, “My greatest wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is in office.”
It is already foreseeable that the expected unrest over this important decision will determine the coming weeks of the election campaign. That alone shows that the discussions broke out so quickly after Ginsburg’s death. People are not allowed to mourn even one day in peace for the judge, who always campaigned for a rapport with the other side.
Zoe Wadge makes that sad, as she says. The 24-year-old from North Carolina, who is a law student at George Washington University, sits on the white steps of the Supreme Court, looking forward to Congress, where the battle is about to begin.
She came that night because her constitutional right was important, but mostly to pay tribute to Ginsburg. “She showed us women how to do it.” RBG was one of the few female students, even when she was a student, and at the age of 60 she was only the second woman on the Supreme Court.
“The loss is so painful,” said Zoe Wadge. “It breaks my heart that we cannot just remember them without worrying at the same time about the survival of our democracy.”