opinion

OPINION: It’s time to end the liberal love affair with Ruth Bader Ginsburg



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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg poses for a photo. Courtesy Photo

The United States Supreme Court has been praised by many Democrats for its recent decisions regarding LGBTQ discrimination in the workplace, a Louisiana anti-abortion law and the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. 

In all three cases, Chief Justice John Roberts, and, in the LGBTQ discrimination case, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined with liberal justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer in the majority opinion.

Within the same period, however, the Court also ruled to allow the construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline underneath the Appalachian Trail and to allow the Trump administration to speed up the deportation of asylum-seekers. Both these decisions saw all five conservative justices joined by Breyer and Ginsburg, who is often lionized as the face of the judicial resistance to President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

Despite what the mugs and tote bags on Etsy might have you believe, Ginsburg isn’t the most dependable liberal vote on the Court, especially when her record is put next to that of the more reliably progressive Sotomayor, and she has made choices and comments during her term that many on the left would find problematic at best. That’s why it’s time to end the liberal love affair with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg worked as a lawyer and professor before being appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1980 by former President Jimmy Carter and to the Supreme Court in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. 

She is most famous for her legal work, both on and off the bench, surrounding gender equality and access to abortion, and her more than two decades on the Supreme Court have seen her become a staunch defender of statutes and laws such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Her particularly fiery dissent in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, which gutted sections of the Voting Rights Act, inspired Shana Knizhnik, then a law student at New York University, to create a Tumblr blog dedicated to the “Notorious R.B.G.,” which was a name meant to compare the justice to the Notorious B.I.G., a rapper. Since then, Ginsburg has been the subject of books, movies and a huge assortment of merchandise.

Idolizing a public figure is always going to be inherently unhealthy, but the idolization of a political figure comes with even more risk. While a singer’s political views have the potential to be harmful to their fans, they’re never going to be in a position to influence the law in the way that someone like Ginsburg is on a daily basis. 

When the Democratic Party still controlled the White House and Senate in 2014, Ginsburg faced calls to step down from the Court in order to ensure that she was replaced by another liberal. Encouraged by her fans, she chose to stay on the Court, which, following the 2016 election of Trump, proved to be a risky calculation. Though her health seems to be fine at the moment, Ginsburg is 87, and she has dealt with both colon and pancreatic cancer, broken ribs and a blocked artery during her years on the Court.

Were Ginsburg to die or fall seriously ill, it could have major effects on the Court’s decision making. Allowing Trump to appoint another conservative justice has the potential to put access to abortion, the future of DACA recipients and possibly even the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at risk. Hindsight is 20/20, but Ginsburg still put the fate of her legacy, and major liberal judicial gains, at risk by not retiring when she had the chance.

The justice’s fans would also likely be shocked to learn that her legal disposition toward equal opportunity and protection under the law doesn’t appear to be translated into her own life. As of 2018, Ginsburg had only hired one Black law clerk since joining the Court in 1993. She also called former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police brutality and racial inequality “really dumb” before walking her comments back in an apology.

It is possible to applaud and appreciate Ginsburg’s role in protecting access to abortion, fighting for gender equality and defending voting rights without making her into a larger-than-life figure that evades all criticism. Though you can buy her prayer candle online, she is not a saint, and she isn’t perfect. Pretending otherwise only leads to willful ignorance and future heartbreak.

It’s time to end the liberal love affair with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still celebrate her decades of work that has helped move the U.S. forward on so many issues.

Jerrett Alexander (he/him) is a rising sophomore studying international relations and environmental sustainability. He sits on the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability.

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