“A more perfect Union.”
In context of the chaotic year that is 2020, it seems we cannot be further from this vague and fanciful phrase set forth in the Constitution’s preamble. After the last nine month’s long string of turmoil, there is yet another tragic event to be added: the death of human-rights champion and dissenting icon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Little doubt remains that her achievements, both professional and personal, reflect a lifelong career of fighting to gain legal equality for marginalized groups in America; to list them here would be both exhausting and impossible. Perhaps more extraordinary is her vision of equal justice under the law, which served the basis for every landmark human-rights decision she made.
At her Senate confirmation hearing, she presented her guiding principle to interpreting the Constitution: living constitutionalism.
She made it clear to the Senate that she believed in the Constitution as a living document, and that as America grew, interpretations should evolve with changing cultural norms.
In this way, she contested, each generation of Americans strived to come closer to “perfecting” the constitutional ideals first conceived by the Founders. With every step, approaching a “more perfect union.”
Justice Ginsburg’s steadfast belief in judicial equality first guided her efforts to solve the looming gap in legal protections between men and women in the 1970s.
As founder of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, she strategically pursued cases of sex discrimination in its many forms, including pregnancy discrimination. Without protections against pregnancy discrimination, Ginsburg understood that women would never reach true political, economic, or social equality with their male-counterparts.
In the abortion case Gonzales v. Carhart, for example, she declared that the excessive legal blocks to abortion serve not to uphold some vague sense of privacy, as conservative justices often cite, but rather to obstruct a women’s autonomy as the primary decider of her own life.
By this reasoning, she swiftly tied together a women’s right to biological choice with her resulting status as a citizen of equal value and importance — a revolutionary notion for all women.
Moreover, Justice Ginsburg’s early focus on addressing sex-based discrimination guided her protections of other marginalized groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. Much of her later career centered around ensuring equal legal considerations for all people.
For example, she argued for the continuation of affirmative action for racial minority groups, reasoning that the slight prejudice against white applicants in college admissions is not comparable to policies that work to dismantle the entrenched racial discrimination and its present-day inequities.
“We are not far distant from an overly discriminatory past, and the effects of centuries of law-sanctioned [racial] inequality remain painfully evident in our communities and schools,” Ginsburg wrote in a dissent to the 2003 University of Michigan case Gratz v. Bollinger.
In addition to larger marginalized groups, Justice Ginsburg developed her position on Native American legal claims from one of restraint to one of deeper consideration for Native Americans’ realities. She evolved from, in her first Native American-related decision, refuting tribal members’ exemption from state tax to, in later decisions, demonstrating a firmer grasp on federal Indian law and how to use it to promote Native rights.
In other landmark decisions, Justice Ginsburg solidified herself as a defender of LBTQ+ rights.
She ruled with the majority in cases like Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which established protection for consensual, same-sex conduct under the Due Process Clause, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage on a federal level for the first time. She also officiated several same-sex marriages, proving herself a staunch ally to the gay and lesbian community.
Throughout all her early litigation and later Supreme Court decisions, Ruth Bader Ginsburg embodied an invaluable identity beyond that of a judicial trailblazer but as an unwavering hero for humankind.
I realize the term “hero” is often loosely thrown around. Much to my dismay, too frequently we assign it to the stereotypical man bent on power and domination. Whether in reference to members of our hugely-oversized military enforcing our political interests around the world or local police officers flaunting their qualified immunity in the face of rising police violence against Black Americans, these people hold society’s blind praise.
But they are not heroes to me.
She fought for the average American, even if that average American is a small, female, Muslim, Pakistani-American, second-generation budding activist.
Protecting the already-powerful is not heroic. Supporting the already-superior is not honorable. And advancing the already-affluent is certainly not helping anyone who needs it.
A true hero is someone who is not only willing, but driven to serve and advocate the cause of those less entitled.
To use their position to provide representation and hope to those who are in greatest need of it.
And to work tirelessly to defend whole populations from threats against their civil liberty, saving millions of strangers from obstacles they may not have even been aware of to begin with.
In other words, to be Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
In everything from her scathing legal opinions to her countless personal struggles as a female lawyer making her place in a hostile world, she exemplified what it means to be a hero in every facet of her life. She fought for the average American, even if that average American is a small, female, Muslim, Pakistani-American, second-generation budding activist.
She fought for me.