History will certainly remember Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy, but right now, in the present, we should allow her life to guide us as a country.
During this time of tribute to a truly iconic associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, we simultaneously have seen the start of a contentious battle to name her successor. From the basic question of whether the president should nominate someone to the anticipated partisan confirmation hearing — on track to become harsh and personal — we are in the midst of turmoil. It would serve us all well, whether we are decision-makers or casual watchers of the news, to approach these issues with Justice Ginsburg’s lived values in mind.
I met Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg briefly in April 2005 at a small gathering for newly confirmed federal judges in Washington, D.C. She spent an hour or so mingling among the new judges and their spouses and made a point to talk to everyone in the room. My wife Theresa spoke to her about art and a brooch Justice Ginsburg was wearing. She impressed us as genuinely open and warm.
Fast-forward several years, I visited the Supreme Court and sat in the magnificent courtroom to watch oral arguments in a criminal case I tried as a district judge. The case involved First Amendment issues and received a great deal of attention. I well remember Justice Ginsburg’s insightful and probing questions that went right to the heart of the case.
Not only that, she was on the bench several days after surgery to place a stent in her heart — and she was fully informed and fully engaged. I later read that when she was coping with a separate health issue, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor advised her to schedule treatments on Fridays so she could recover over the weekend and return to work on Monday. No doubt she did this on many occasions, out of true commitment to her work.
Like so many, I was saddened at the news of her passing on Sept. 18, and I have been watching reactions on television and in the newspapers. I am moved to share my thoughts here because I worry that the story of her legacy is yielding to news of the politically fraught process to name her replacement. We should be guided in our discourse by her example.
Justice Ginsburg embodied civility and justice, not partisanship. Brilliant, soft-spoken, understated and kind, she is a giant in our nation’s history. It has been said that Justice Ginsburg was “the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement.” Like Justice Marshall, she was, as a lawyer, a driver of sweeping changes in our nation’s social fabric and in the evolution of our civil rights jurisprudence over the last 50 years. And like Justice Marshall, she was a force for good on the Supreme Court in her serious approach to serious issues, in her well-reasoned opinions, in her questioning from the bench and in her eloquent and thought-provoking dissents. Even her dissents were written with hope for the future, never with an ego.
Justice Ginsburg continues to serve as a model for judges and lawyers alike for her demeanor, her intellectual curiosity and especially for how to treat respectfully those with whom we disagree. This legacy, built on countless small acts of courtesy and respect, on kindness, on collegiality, is nothing short of profound. It starkly contrasts with what today passes for discourse among many in the other two branches of government.
Her close friend on the court for many years was Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she and their spouses shared New Year’s Eves and bonded over a love of opera, art and literature. The two justices could not have been more ideologically different — he an outspoken originalist and a true conservative, she a former civil rights litigator. Yet they were able to disagree with respect and grace and with a shared commitment to the law. Their disagreements pushed them both further, made them both better. That is a legacy for all of us.
In a recent interview, Justice Ginsburg talked about the importance of being nonpartisan in making judicial decisions. She explained that the court’s currency is public confidence and that its power relies on the public’s willingness to follow thoughtfully reasoned nonpolitical decisions.
When I met Justice Ginsburg briefly at that judge’s reception years ago, I was struck initially by the fact that she attended at all. She was in a room full of judges appointed by President George W. Bush. She was a prominent member of the so-called liberal group on the Supreme Court, and we were appointed by a noted conservative. Yet she warmly welcomed each of us to the federal judiciary. Looking back now, I view this event, surely one of so many small moments in such a big life, as representing her legacy of openness, civility, balance and genuine intellectual independence. Qualities of a truly exemplary justice; qualities we would all be well-served to emulate, perhaps now more so than ever.
The Hon. Lawrence F. Stengel served as the Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania before his retirement in August 2018. He now leads the mediation center, Optimal Dispute Resolutions, and internal investigations practice at the Lancaster-based law firm Saxton & Stump. Judge Stengel is grateful to attorneys Leslie Minora and Ashley Nichols Weber for sharing their insights, edits and overall brilliance in the preparation of this column.