Stylist’s Meriam Ahari is an American based in London. She shares what Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s replacement for US Supreme Court Justice could mean for the future of America.
Early Saturday morning, as I sat scrolling through my Instagram feed, I saw the devastating news that Ruth Bader Ginsburg – Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court – had passed away after years of battling cancer. Much like everyone else, I was stricken with immense grief that the world had lost a true force of nature – a feminist to the core who spent her life fighting tirelessly for gender equality. As I continued to absorb the steady stream of tributes dominating my feed, I realised another feeling beginning to swell within me: the fear of what Ginsburg’s death would mean for the future of America.
I’m probably not alone when I say that I’ve spent the year of 2020 swimming – more like drowning? – in a sea of uncertainty. Concern for the safety of my family during a pandemic (I’m an American based in London so being miles away from my family has been tough), anxiety over my job security in a struggling economy, utter confusion from the government’s mixed-messages on social distancing guidelines, anger from the senseless murders of Black people at the hands of police brutality. And now, the looming election in November that will decide whether our country will be stuck with four more years of a leader whose sexist and racist remarks will undoubtedly continue to tear apart the country’s already divided citizens (like we need another reason to keep us up at night).
I’ve spent the last four years trying to rinse my mouth of the bitter distaste that Trump leaves with every tweet. His oppressive rants have splintered the country and with just six weeks until election day, I can’t help but feel (selfishly, I know) that Ginsburg’s death could not have come at a worse time. Losing one of the (very) few admirable figures in government, one who I felt was on my side, is a hit not only to women, the Black community and the LGBTQ+ community, but to humanity in general. Ginsburg was our reassurance that someone who had our interests at heart had a seat at the table. With her on the bench, we could rest easy knowing that government policies would never stray too far or that our country would regress to the Stone Age – back when archaic notions such as segregation and bans on same-sex marriage were actually acceptable. What has made me revert back to my nail-biting days is whether Trump will replace Ginsburg before his term is over – or worse, if his term continues.
Social media proves that I’m not alone in my unease. Ying Chu, editor in chief of Violet Grey wrote on Instagram, “Numb. Honor her and VOTE.” While the account @GuerillaGirls stated, “Where would we be without her? We must preserve her legacy and keep up the fight. For equality. For all.” In a powerful post, New York-based artist Paco May shared, “America lets us all down, and often…Her death should be celebrated as the end of a well-run marathon. Instead, it’s the beginning of a crisis for the country she helped shape…Court packing needs to happen. Minority rule is not democracy.” The common thread being the urgency to get out and vote. But because this is an election year, it’s a little more complicated.
Former President Barack Obama tweeted, “Summer’s almost over, Senate leaders. #DoYourJob.” Alluding to whether or not the Senate majority leader (Republican Mitch McConnell) will rush a vote for the Senate (which is currently a conservative majority of 53 Republicans and 45 Democrats) to confirm Ginsburg’s replacement before the presidential election. The catch is that doing so could put Republican senators in a tricky position as their vote could cost them a re-election when their term expires in January – and risk losing Republican control of the Senate. If McConnell chooses to hold the vote for a new justice until after the presidential election, Republican senators will be protected from having to take an unpopular vote before the presidential election.
This also enables President Trump to make the appointment of the next US Supreme Court Justice the focus of his campaign for re-election – distracting the public from his shortcomings that have made him less popular (such as his poor handling of the pandemic).
In 2016 when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away, President Obama tried to nominate Merrick Garland as his replacement. In an interesting twist of fate, McConnell blocked the nomination, saying that it was too close to an election – which became known as the “McConnell Rule.” Creative strategy manager at A+E Networks Rashna Shetty says, “It can be our only hope that McConnell upholds this ‘rule’ right before the upcoming election.”
What’s more unsettling is what Ginsburg’s replacement could mean for policies going forward. Under her reign, she became the first US Supreme Court Justice to officiate a same-sex marriage. In another first, Ginsburg spoke on behalf of Jewish attorneys, requesting “In the year of our Lord” to be removed from Supreme Court bar certificates – which was eliminated in 2018.
The Justice was certainly not afraid to go against the grain. In 2007, Ginsburg dissented from majority opinion in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. case. The majority ruled that the female plaintiff’s claim of pay discrimination based on her gender was invalid since the statute of limitations had expired. Ginsburg argued that salary discrepancies due to gender discrimination was considerably different from other types of discrimination, such as being fired – as it wasn’t as easy to identify and the plaintiff had not learned of her unequal pay until years later.
The beauty of Ginsburg’s many dissents was that she put justice above the law. Her rulings exemplified what the judicial system is meant to do: to protect its people. Not punish them because they’ve missed a deadline or breached an unreasonable technicality. And she did so in a way that was impartial and fair – something that our officials could learn a thing or two about. Try stomaching just five minutes of the childish tantrums displayed in Congress (like last year’s dispute on funding the wall on the US-Mexico border which led to a 35-day government shutdown).
The RGB documentary on Netflix highlights her longtime friendship with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia who disagreed with her on everything from women’s presence in the military to the Affordable Care Act. Yet, they respected each other and even enjoyed one another’s company – putting aside their differences and placing their relationship above pettiness. A prime example of how politicians – and human beings in general – should behave. If only.
So, who are the new prospects? The latest news suggests that Trump is pressing Republicans to confirm a candidate “without delay” and stated that he expects to make an announcement by next week. Which is enough to send chills up my spine.
Call me dramatic, but Trump hasn’t had the greatest track record of recruiting upstanding citizens to join his circle. In 2018, he nominated Brett Kavanaugh – a man accused of alleged sexual assault by two women – for Associate Justice to succeed Justice Anthony Kennedy after his retirement. Not to mention the fact that five of Trump’s advisers have admitted to or been convicted of crimes ranging from tax fraud to making “hush money” payments to women accusing Trump of sexual assault.
Two women that have made headlines as prospective candidates to replace Ginsburg are Judges Amy Coney Barrett of the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and Barbara Lagoa of the 11th Circuit in Atlanta. If confirmed, it’s an optimistic gesture on Trump’s part that he nominated a woman and I hope she upholds the same values and morals that Justice Ginsburg stood for.
I rang my mom when I heard the devastating news of Ginsburg’s passing. Now, in my family, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree – except when it comes to politics. My parents have been die-hard Republicans their entire life and we’ve learned to keep peace at the dinner table by agreeing to disagree. But even Trump’s pill has been a hard one to swallow – causing my father to declare that for the first time he’s not opposed to crossing party lines for the upcoming election. When I asked my mom about her thoughts on Ginsburg’s passing, she said, “her death is adding fuel to an already inflamed, and deeply divided country – especially so close to the elections. The appointment of her replacement – either by President Trump or by a new president – is sure to affect the outcome of cases before a new Supreme Court, especially concerning policies on abortion, healthcare and immigration. We have certainly lost a brilliant liberal who worked tirelessly for women and minorities.”
Megan Reynolds, an American who moved to London in 2016 to work as market director at Matchesfashion, also fears that important decision making could fall through the cracks of a broken system. “Trump’s potential to push through a third Supreme Court Justice during his single term would mean some of the country’s most controversial decisions are in the hands of leaders who have proven biased and beholden to the Trump agenda. The country had a mighty voice for egalitarianism in Jusptice Ginsburg and in her absence, there is a grave threat to upset the equilibrium she provided for years to come.”
Shetty echoes her devastation, “Ginsburg’s death only makes our fight to protect what is right in our country more meaningful. Ginsburg’s legacy must be carried on by someone worthy to take her place.”
Days before her death, Ginsburg provided a statement saying “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” Whoever the replacement may be, they undoubtedly have large neck collars to fill. Whether appointed by Trump or not – that nomination will send a clear message to women like me, to Blacks, and to the LGBTQ+ community just exactly where we sit on their list of priorities.
The road ahead is going to be a long and tough one. As Americans prepare themselves for what’s sure to be a messy clash, we’re also ready to take action. I know I am. Amy Fortunato, creative director at The Bloc, adds, “Losing RBG is another heartbreaking event in this awful year. While her life is to be celebrated as one of the heroes of equality and thoughtful decisions, her passing leaves such an empty place in our judicial system. If anything positive can come of her death, I hope it galvanizes us to vote like our democracy depends on it, because it does.”
In the melee to come, one thing is for sure, we can honour Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy by voting. While she may not be there with us in person to lead the way, we can continue her crusade to fight for equality – for women, for Black people, for the LGBTQ+ community, for everyone.