A Letter from the Co-Dean to the Rutgers Law School Students, Faculty, and Staff on September 21, 2020
Last Friday, at sundown on Rosh Hashanah, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed at the age 87. I have been told in the Jewish tradition, those who pass on the High Holidays are considered the most righteous.
Indeed, Justice Ginsburg was righteous and a great American.
She will be remembered as a legal giant: a Justice on the United States Supreme Court, a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a trailblazing litigator for equal rights and justice, and a law professor at Columbia and, of course, here at Rutgers Law School in Newark.
Justice Ginsburg pushed our nation forward to live its finest. She made this country better. Her tenacity, intelligence, and empathy for the voiceless inspired so many in this nation, including so many of us to become attorneys. Everyone in our law school community stands on her shoulders!
I know I do. Like many budding civil rights lawyers, Justice Ginsburg’s powerful voice, courage, and intellect (too often in dissent) always inspired us to work harder, think innovatively, own our own narrative, and remember always those too often forgotten and marginalized economically and politically. Her language was concise and powerful, even when it embodied a deep hurt and injustice. For instance, as I recall during each election season, in Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-4 decision striking down the preclearance provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act, she reminded posterity that “[t]hrowing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
At Rutgers Law School, we remember her as one of our own. According to Justice Ginsburg, she had the “great fortune” to be on the Rutgers Law faculty from 1963-1972. During her tenure at Rutgers, she was a highly popular professor and was the inaugural advisor to the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, the first law journal in the United States focused on issues of gender equality and justice. This journal was established by law students during the early days of our “People’s Electric Law School.” Elizabeth Langer, the first editor-in-chief of the Reporter, remembered then-Professor Ginsburg as a “taskmaster.” Still, she recalls,
She gave us credibility. Gave us legitimacy. Defended us to faculty members who thought this was ridiculous. And she shepherded us through, along with a lot of enthusiastic law students. Mostly women.
In turn, Justice Ginsburg would remember Rutgers Law as a place that “remained steadfast in its commitment to diversity, advancing opportunities for people long left out to aspire and achieve.” This is how we aspire to be seen today as well.
However, it is useful to remember that, according to her biographer, Justice Ginsburg was underpaid relative to men and made the decision to hide her pregnancy because of her concern about discrimination. Our failure to fully live up to the values Justice Ginsburg valued should be a reminder and catalyst of the critical importance of redoubled vigilance and hard work to achieve the core values of this institution.
This weekend, we have received an outpouring of grief and love from many of our alumni. There have been several stories highlighting her time at Rutgers Law, including tributes by alumni and current students. In coming days, we hope for an opportunity to share these stories and to honor Justice Ginsburg more formally.
This weekend, President Trump announced his intention to nominate a replacement as soon as this week. In coming days, this country will likely face heightened and intense political division and struggle as the Senate considers whether to consider and vote on a replacement before the coming election (see interviews by Professors Penny Venetis and Sahar Aziz discussing the process).
This debate will occur in the context of an already deeply divided nation and an upcoming presidential election. We understand that many in our nation and community feel enormous anxiety and concern about the current political environment. We will continue to discuss this with you inside and outside the classroom. As future lawyers, it is critical we think deeply about issues of justice and fairness in coming days. These are not hackneyed terms, but the glue of any social contract binding us together as a nation. But perhaps here we find some glimmer of hope in her friendship and collegiality with her frequent opera companion but ideological opposite Justice Antonin Scalia.
In the last few years, Justice Ginsburg grew more comfortable in her role as the pop icon the “Notorious RBG” and became more outspoken in her views on the Court and contemporary events. In “Advice for the Living,” a 2016 op-ed for the New York Times, Justice Ginsburg discusses her journey and reminds us of the tremendous work remaining to be done to address deep inequality in our nation, particularly for women. Still she concludes with a note of optimism about the future:
Earlier, I spoke of great changes I have seen in women’s occupations. Yet one must acknowledge the still bleak part of the picture. Most people in poverty in the United States and the world over are women and children, women’s earnings here and abroad trail the earnings of men with comparable education and experience, our workplaces do not adequately accommodate the demands of childbearing and child rearing, and we have yet to devise effective ways to ward off sexual harassment at work and domestic violence in our homes. I am optimistic, however, that movement toward enlistment of the talent of all who compose “We, the people,” will continue.
During a Great Pandemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 of our neighbors and amplified deep, ugly chasms of inequality and a Great Reckoning on police violence and structural racism against the African-American community, Justice Ginsburg’s resolve and optimism that the nation will garner the full talents and power of “We, the People” resonates with particular poignancy and force.
Thank you Justice Ginsburg!
Our hearts ache and we will miss you. But we know it is now our turn to carry on your legacy.
Rest in Power always!
Co-Dean David Lopez