It was not long ago that the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia stood on the graduation podium of Southern Methodist University and declared that the American Constitution, as a living document, is “dead, dead, dead.” With the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court generation that defined the past three decades of American politics with ideologically liberal rulings is almost certainly over.
If one were to look at the history of the American Supreme Court justice nomination, it is clear that the judiciary has never been deeply polarized. The last time the Senate appointed a Supreme Court justice with only a single-digit opposition was in 1994, a year after Ginsburg’s inauguration. All later justice confirmations would be with tremendous political fanfare and disagreement. With the current conservative slant in the Supreme Court, reproductive rights and women’s advocacy in the U.S. will almost definitely be challenged and pushed in an entirely different direction.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was best known for her trailblazing efforts in promoting gender equality and inspiring a generation of female legal practitioners. Before making history in the Supreme Court, she fought for gender rights and systematically demolished the various discriminatory practices baked into U.S. domestic policy. She introduced new ideas into the U.S. legal system from foreign lands, citing German cases in Reed vs. Reed, and contributed to the legal discipline by learning Swedish to co-author a book on civil procedure in Sweden.
While celebrated for her achievements in feminism and gender equality, Ginsburg also put her stamp on the most important civil rights rulings, such as the United States vs. Virginia and the more recent Obergefell vs. Hodges, aided by the 5-4 majority that the liberal-leaning clique of the Supreme Court held until the election of the current president. Moreover, her practice of “legislating from the bench” has reshaped human rights in the U.S., banning the death penalty for the intellectually challenged in Moor vs. Texas and Hall vs. Florida. Yet, all her efforts may likely have been in vain.
The judiciary of the United States holds tremendous power compared to most democracies. As the highest court of the land, it often has the final say on government policy, guided by the world’s oldest constitution—with only a couple of amendments. The election of the incumbent U.S. president in 2016 forever changed the composition of the Supreme Court, propelling two new conservative-leaning justices into the Supreme Court against a flurry of accusations of sexual misconduct and alcoholism. The recent loss of Justice Ginsburg is simply the final blow for an already crippled liberal-leaning wing.
Assuming the successful confirmation of the next justice, Amy Coney Barrett, it is likely that Donald Trump would head into the election battlefield with yet another feather in his hat, becoming the only president to have pushed three justices into the Supreme Court since Ronald Reagan. His most enduring legacy may not be the tweets reminiscent of Nero’s fiddle, but the 6-3 ideologically conservative and heavily politicized Supreme Court.
As I flip through a copy of the 2015 satirical Opera Scalia vs. Ginsburg by Derrick Wang, which I acquired after Ginsburg’s most untimely demise, it is hard not to wonder what the world would have been like had Clinton not put forth her nomination. From Native American rights to gender equality, she has impacted countless lives and influenced many legal systems around the world.
While the Arab Spring and other U.S. foreign policy failures have not introduced western liberal ideology into the troubled North African region, Ginsburg helped pave the way with her 2012 visit to Egypt, where she advised the court on how to draft their new constitution.
The world has lost a feminist icon and a symbol for humanism and internationalism. With the impending U.S. presidential election already shrouded in controversy and the out-of-control pandemic stateside, one can only hope that the justices who will rule for decades to come will exercise the level-mindedness and spirit of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.