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‘Titan,’ ‘folk hero’ and ‘American patriot’: The Northwest remembers Ginsburg

UPDATED: Sat., Sept. 19, 2020

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg laughs on stage in 2016 during a public event inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.  (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg laughs on stage in 2016 during a public event inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was being remembered throughout the Northwest Saturday as a trailblazer, a champion of equal rights, a tough questioner and a brilliant jurist.

But Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87 from pancreatic cancer, also was described as a famous but friendly pop culture icon who could awe visitors while putting them at ease.

Gonzaga Law School Dean Jacob Rooksby recalled a trip some GU law students and alumni made to the Supreme Court in November 2018 for a swearing-in ceremony.

They had written the justices to ask if they could meet with any of them after the day’s court business and Ginsburg was one of those who wrote back saying she’d be happy to meet.

But shortly before the trip, Ginsburg was injured in a fall and Rooksby thought it wasn’t likely she’d be available.

They had a great meeting with John Roberts in a conference room, and when the chief justice left they assumed it was time to leave. But suddenly, without any fanfare, Ginsburg entered the room.

“It was like a superstar had arrived,” Rooksby remembered.

She was soft-spoken and at that point quite frail. The students, alums and family members huddled around carefully. She answered all their questions, from points of jurisprudence to how she felt about being a pop culture figure.

A spouse of one of the alums had an RBG action figure and asked if she would sign it. She said she was happy to do it.

“It was a remarkable capstone to the trip,” he said.

Like many interviewed for this story, Rooksby cited Ginsburg’s work on equal rights as one of her legacies. He recalled her 1996 opinion in the case that opened Virginia Military Institute, essentially striking down any law that denies women an equal opportunity “simply because they are women.”

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno said Ginsburg had a way of speaking that was so compelling. In arguing cases before the court when it was made up of all men, most of them white, she explained to them that their definition of equality was not equality for women.

“Her work on the bench was excellent, of course, but I’ve always been impressed by her story,” Moreno said.

Ginsburg studied law at Harvard and graduated from Columbia University tied for first in her class but couldn’t get a job as a lawyer with a major firm. She was rejected for a Supreme Court clerkship because she was a woman. At her first teaching position at Rutgers she was told she would be paid less than male colleagues because her husband had a good-paying job.

Later she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project with the American Civil Liberties Union, became its general counsel and was involved in a series of cases arguing that women and men should be treated equally on issues involving the military, Social Security and jury duty.

“She was a rock in how she viewed equal rights,” said retired Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor, who was the first woman elected to that judicial post in Spokane County. “She never wavered. She was dedicated to equal rights, particularly for women.”

Still, Ginsburg, who was born in 1933, was “very much a lady of her generation,” O’Connor said. “She really tried to work with people. She was not really combative … but she would not change her mind.”

When appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 she was only the second woman to serve as a justice.

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, was elected in 1992, and Ginsburg was the first justice for whom she would vote. Friday night she was remembering her friend, role model and “North Star.”

“My heart is breaking for a million reasons,” Murray said in a prepared statement. “That fight for justice, which she led so passionately for so long, is now ours to take up in her memory.”

Murray said she will work hard to make sure the presidential election is decided before her replacement is sworn in.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a fellow Democrat, agreed.

“I believe the voice of the American people will be heard to make sure we will honor the life, the career and the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Inslee said in a statement released Friday night. “As she once wrote, ‘The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government.’ ”

University of Idaho professor of law Shaakirrah Sanders said one of the early cases tackled by the Women’s Rights Project ties Ginsburg to Idaho.

Reed v. Reed challenged an Idaho law that said men should be given preference over women in appointing administrators to estates. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, where the justices issued a unanimous landmark ruling that the 14th Amendment forbids discrimination on the basis of sex.

When she thinks about Ginsburg’s death, Sanders said she thinks about that connection and legacy.

Sanders teaches constitutional law, which can include race and gender. A Black woman, Sanders said she equates Ginsburg’s legacy to that of civil rights activist, lawyer and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

“For me that legacy of fighting for equality and justice and equity is one I get to share every day with students,” Sanders said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican, also mentioned her work on Reed v. Reed to overturn sex-based discrimination as he looked back on Ginsburg’s career.

“While I did not agree with some of her opinions on matters of legal doctrine, I respect her courage to hold steadfast to her beliefs,” Crapo said in a statement released Friday night. “She fought a hard fight against cancer, and her legacy will continue for many more generations.”

Inslee called Ginsburg “one of the greatest American patriots to ever serve on the U.S. Supreme Court … she was one of America’s greatest champions for justice, in the truest sense of the word.”

Her legacy includes upholding reproductive rights, fighting to preserve the Voting Rights Act and enshrining equality under the law for the LGBTQ community, Inslee said. She was a public servant who kept the country true to its purpose and her legacy will reshape America forever, no matter what happens next, he added.

“Generations of Americans, from those who fought at her side for decades to young people inspired by her guts and brilliance, will remember her as a folk hero,” he said.

On the bench, she could be tough, as Spokane attorney Jeff Finer recalled.

He and other attorneys prepared for months for a 1996 case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Most U.S. circuits along the way had ruled in his favor in a case that argued civil forfeiture and criminal prosecution for the same offense violated double-jeopardy protections in the U.S. Constitution.

In front of the nation’s highest court, Finer faced a new line of tougher inquiries.

“She came up with questions that no one had asked before,” Finer said. He recalled her asking why the court should agree with him, setting aside the premise that he thought he was right.

He lost 9-0.

“Even losing her vote – and I could tell I had lost it – I was so impressed with her and the questions she asked,” Finer said. “I found her refreshing, brilliant and tough.”

He called her “a titan,” and a “true judge,” who had a profound ability to explain complex and profound legal concepts in ways that people could understand.

Dan Johnson, on the other hand, said he’ll always remember her going relatively easy on him when he challenged an aspect of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act on behalf of a Colville man in 2013. Ginsburg was the first to ask him a question and “it was kind of a softball … she wasn’t in a confrontational manner. It kind of just got things going.”

He won the case on an 8-1 decision, with only Justice Samuel Alito voting no.

Although only 5-foot-1, Ginsburg was imposing for an attorney standing before the Supreme Court bench, Johnson said. “But they’re all pretty imposing up there.”

In her later years, Ginsburg suffered from a series of medical problems but repeatedly bounced back, in part with a strict health regimen. Through it all, her mind stayed sharp, said Moreno, the Spokane County Superior Court judge.

“She was a fighter,” Moreno said. “I don’t know how she did it.”

Jonathan Brunt, Laurel Demkovich and Orion Donovan-Smith contributed to this report.

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