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Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Modeling Civility

September 21, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The late justice displayed respect and warmth to all.

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was no stranger to strong emotion. Lionized as a feminist icon on the left, she was reviled by many on the right – in 2018 the business magazine Inc. called her one of the most polarizing people in America. Last year a poster near a New York City subway stop that featured her image was defaced with neo-Nazi symbols and death threats. Her death on Friday, September 18, 2020 has opened a battle to name her replacement on the highest court that threatens to become rancorous and heated in the coming weeks.

Yet in her long life and legal career, Justice Ginsburg was known as a soft-spoken person who cultivated warm relationships with colleagues, even those whose views differed sharply from her own. She had close friendships with ideological foes and often gave advice on how to overcome animosity. We need her friendly example and wise words today more than ever.

Ruth Bader was born in 1933 in Brooklyn – she was known by the nickname Kiki as a child. Her father Nathan was a Jewish immigrant from Russia – Justice Ginsburg later explained that he came to America seeking an education, which Jewish children were barred from obtaining in his part of Russia as a child. Her mother Celia was born into a Jewish immigrant family from Hungary: Celia was brilliant, graduating from high school in Manhattan at the age of 15. Celia hoped to go to college – her brother attended Cornell, and she’d hoped to do the same – but that was an unusual move for women at the time, and Celia went into her family’s garment business.

Instead of pursuing her own education, Celia poured her encouragement and hopes into Ruth, who’d inherited her mother’s brilliance. (Ruth had an older sister who tragically died of meningitis when Ruth was a baby.) Ruth excelled all through high school, graduating at 17 and winning a scholarship to Cornell. Celia was able to see her daughter’s early academic success: she became ill with cancer, and died the day before Ruth’s high school graduation. As she sat shiva for her beloved mother, Ruth’s high school teachers came to the family’s modest home bearing the many awards and medals she was awarded by the school.

It was her mother Celia whom Justice Ginsburg thought of in 1993, when she was appointed to the Supreme Court. As she stood in the Rose Garden with Pres. Clinton, Ruth brought tears to the president’s eyes – and to many others – when she recalled her beloved mother. “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons,” Justice Ginsburg said.

“In every good marriage,” her mother in law told her, “it helps to be a little deaf.”

As a freshman at Cornell, Ruth met Marty Ginsburg, a brilliant sophomore. “He was the only boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain,” she used to quip. Two years later they were engaged, and they married in 1954 as soon as Ruth graduated from college. They had a traditional Jewish wedding, and it was on her wedding day that Ruth gained one of the most important pieces of advice in her life. “In every good marriage,” her mother in law told her, “it helps to be a little deaf.”

Justice Ginsburg repeated that advice often. In a 2016 article in The New York Times, she explained that when people ask her for advice, it’s that maxim, given by her “savvy mother in law”, that she shared. For Justice Ginsburg, being a little deaf wasn’t only advice for marriage: it was wise counsel for life in all its facets.

“I have followed that advice assiduously,” she wrote, “and not only at home through 56 years of marital partnership nonpareil. I have employed it as well in every workplace, including the Supreme Court. When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out. Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

Ruth and Marty enrolled in Harvard Law School – Ruth was one of only 9 women in the law school at the time. On one occasion, the dean, Erwin Griswold, invited all nine women to dinner and asked them each in turn why they were studying there, taking away a spot in the law school that a man could have used instead. Taken aback, Ruth didn’t know what to say, and nervously said that her husband was studying to be a lawyer too, and this way she could understand his work better.

Humiliations and double standards like that fueled her legal career. Unable to get most legal jobs, Ruth became a law professor at Rutgers in 1963, only the second female law professor in the university, and one of fewer than 24 female law professors in the United States at the time. She also volunteered to work on discrimination cases for the New Jersely chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and eventually argued several discrimination cases before the Supreme Court.

Ruth Ginsburg is well known as one of America’s pioneering lawyers who challenged laws that discriminated against people on the basis of sex. What is less well known is that several of her most important cases featured men, not women, who were discriminated against.

In one landmark case, Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), Ruth represented Stephen Wiesenfeld, a widower whose wife Paula died in childbirth. Both Stephen and Paula had worked – Paula had been a high school teacher – and when she died Stephen wanted to stay at home and raise their motherless baby. Widows were allowed to collect special social security “survivor” benefits to do so, but men were barred from receiving the same benefits. Ruth argued the case before the Supreme Court, which struck down the double standard and allowed Stephen to collect survivor benefits. Ruth remained in touch with the Wiesenfeld family; in 1998 she officiated at the wedding of Stephen and Paula’s son. 42 years after Paula’s death, Stephen found love again and remarried – Justice Ruth Ginsburg officiated.

Those who knew her noted that Ruth Ginsburg was extremely shy and never spoke in anger. She weighed each of her words carefully, to the point of leaving long pauses between her words and sentences sometimes. She described how she managed to raise her two children while maintaining a busy career: when she got home from work, she switched off, devoting herself entirely to her children. Later on, once her kids were in bed, Ruth would take out her legal work once more and immerse herself in complex legal briefs and arguments.

When she joined the Supreme Court in 1993, Ruth brought a determination to be polite, warm and collegial at all times. In a career spanning 27 years, she modeled her mother-in-law’s advice to remain friendly and happy and civil no matter what. As the Court swung to the right over the years, Justice Ginsburg found herself one of its most liberal and outspoken judgments. She was also one of the most friendly and beloved, maintaining warm relations with her colleagues, even when they disagreed sharply over law.

“What’s not to like?” Justice Scalia once quipped about his liberal friends, “except her views on the law.”

Ruth and Marty were close friends with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and his wife Maureen. In the court, the two could not have been more different – Justice Scalia was a strong conservative and very much at odds with Justice Ginsburg’s liberal views. Yet the two justices and their spouses were firm friends. The couple travelled together and spent New Year’s Eve together each year. Ruth and Antonin were both opera buffs, and sometimes attended the opera together as friends. “What’s not to like?” Justice Scalia once quipped about his liberal friends, “except her views on the law.”

At the Supreme Court, Ruth affixed a large silver mezuza on her chamber door and hung up a large painting proclaiming the Hebrew words Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof – “Justice, Justice shall you pursue” (Deut. 16:20) on her office walls. She became one of the Court’s most trenchant justices, authoring about 200 majority opinions in her time on the Court, and also becoming famous for her eloquent dissents.

Even as the country became more polarized, angry and divided, Justice Ginsburg modeled warmth and civility. Justice Sonia Sotomayor recalled that when she joined the Supreme Court in 2009, Ruth Ginsburg welcomed her “with a warmth that I could not have expected.”

Ruth was also close with arch conservative Justice Clarence Thomas. In later years, as Ruth Ginsburg became ever more frail, he often would help her step down from the bench after public sessions. Though they sharply disagreed on many legal matters, the friendship they felt for each other was palpable. “My wife, Virginia, and I are heartbroken to learn of the passing of our friend, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” Justice Thomas said after learning of Ruth’s death; “as outstanding as she was as a judge, she was an even better colleague – unfailingly gracious, thoughtful, and civil.”

She was also extremely warm and supportive of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Court’s newest member whose confirmation battle became a lightning rod for bitter political divisions within the country. Justice Ruth Ginsburg made a point of publicly calling Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, both of whom were appointed by Pres. Trump and whose conservative views of the law differ very much from her own, as “very decent and very smart individuals”. l

After her death, Justice Gorsuch recalled that Ruth tried to teach him about opera and would tell him and the other justices “touching stories about Marty”, who died in 2010. Justice Kavanaugh recalled that even though they were from opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, Ruth Ginsburg’s humanity and civility were inspirational to him. He even keeps a photo of her in his chambers, he revealed, and draws inspiration from her long career.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg harkened back to a gentler, kinder time in America, when we could still find common ground and respect one another even when we held differing political opinions.

“No American has ever done more than Justice Ginsburg to ensure equal justice under law for women,” Justice Kavanaugh said after her death. “I learned from her principled voice and marveled at her wonderful wit at our weekly conferences and daily lunches. Justice Ginsburg paved the way for women to become lawyers and judges. She made it possible for women and girls like my daughters to compete on equal footing as student-athletes… May God bless Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg harkened back to a gentler, kinder time in America, when we could still find common ground and respect one another even when we held differing political opinions. As so many of us struggle to find ways to restore civility to public life, Ruth Ginsburg’s legacy provides a model. Time and again, when she was asked for advice, Justice Ginsburg repeated her mother-in-law’s counsel to “be a little deaf”. It’s a message that we can all heed today. Like Justice Ginsburg, we can all take our time to formulate our response and thoughts. We can all give other people the benefit of the doubt. We can treat others with respect – even when we hold differing views. We can find common ground with others and build friendships with those who have different beliefs from our own.

Justice Ginsburg died just before Rosh Hashanah, and her legacy of civility and warmth is particularly relevant now, during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a time when Jews reflect back on the past year and resolve ways to improve. Taking the time to formulate our thoughts, be respectful to others, and maintain civility even when we disagree is a great place to start.


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