The world woke up to news of the death of American jurist and associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, 18th September 2020. She had been battling a recurrence of pancreatic cancer. She was 87 at the time of her demise, but according to medical advice, the strong treatment (chemotherapy) did not seem to impact her ability to perform her demanding job. She was serving her 25th year on the Court’s Bench.
My first visit to the US Supreme Court was in 2013. I was a law student and had travelled to the US Capital of Washington, D.C to represent Uganda in the Phillip C. Jessup International Law moot, which is the oldest and largest international law moot court in the world attracting close to 700 law schools from about 90 countries in the world annually since 1968.
A moot is a prestigious co-curricular activity held in law schools, where participants compete in simulated/mock court or arbitration proceedings, usually involving drafting memorials, briefs or memoranda and participating in oral argument before a panel of judges. This is done to hone reading, comprehension, writing, presentation and argument skills of law students so that they can become great all-round Advocates/lawyers.
I did not have the privilege of meeting the late Ginsburg while at the Supreme Court, but her contribution and presence were written all over the Court and beyond. One could not miss her towering presence in terms of scholarship, jurisprudence and history. Sixty years ago, Ginsburg had applied to be a clerk at the same Court and in spite of her having attended two of the finest law schools (Cornell and Columbia) and graduated joint first in her class, she was rejected for the position- not because she was inadequate, but just because she was a woman! With hindsight, it is almost impossible to imagine that there once existed man-made laws that imposed different alcohol drinking age standards between men and women.
Her illustrious judicial career was sprinkled with interesting judgments because of her clarity of mind and exceptional writing prowess. During my free time at law school, I occasionally caught up with my American law professor, Mr. Brian Dennison to have a chat and understand more about the American context of things. One of those decisions strongly debated was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), where the US Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 that the free speech clause of the First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibits the government from restricting independent spending on political communications by corporations, hence giving corporations and unions the freedom to spend money both on election-related communications and directly advocate for the election or defeat of political candidates just like natural persons. Ginsburg dissented to this view held by the majority.
Like her colleagues in the minority, she was concerned that corporate domination of political speech during elections could impoverish rather than enrich the marketplace of ideas in political discourse and contestation. To her, public good always came first.
The late Ginsburg was a fearless and fervent advocate for the cause of women equality. As a co-founder of the Women’s Rights Law Reporter the 1970, she set the pace for the first law journal in the country to focus exclusively on women’s rights. This served as a critical intellectual base for the women movement.
In 1972, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and became the Project’s general counsel in 1973 to advance the cause of strategic litigation to expunged laws that discriminated against women. She set a prolific precedent by arguing six gender discrimination cases between 1973 and 1976, winning five of them. These cases ranged from challenging statutes where widowers (perceived to be “breadwinners”) could not receive social security benefits from deceased wives under the then American Social Security Act to annulling provisions in a Wisconsin law where female hairstylists were prohibited from cutting men’s hair!
It is not an exaggeration to argue that these incremental wins inspired the women movement everywhere all over the globe, including Africa because every time we strike at injustice, we send a reverberating ray of hope and shed a beam of light in the dark corners of humanity. I have personally witnessed this as a young boy growing up with a feminist mom (coincidentally, another Ruth), whose feminism is centred on financial independence and asset ownership by women in their own right.
Through the contribution of pioneers like the late Ginsburg, a whole movement was inspired and through women like my mother, Ruth a flame was lit. Through a tumultuous life story involving going through a court and customary divorce, and having to rebuild her life almost from scratch as a single mother in a rabidly conservative society, my mother paved the way for me to understand and relate with the causes and agenda her fellow women like Ginsburg were fighting, in different ways and in their different capacities.
As a boy (and now a man), I grew up not scared by the idea of an equal and an empowered woman precisely because I am a child and a beneficiary of the women movement. From sharing literature- my mom’s favourite Maria Matembe’s, “Woman in the Eyes of God: Reclaiming a Lost Identity” to her daily work as a women representative on various political councils and committees, my mother impressed it on me daily that Africa will never develop for as long as it continues to exclude women from its decision making processes. This is indeed affirmed better by Ginsburg through her famous quote, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”
As a lawyer and emerging entrepreneur, I am acutely aware of how much support the female movement still needs to actualize the dream of genuine equality, fairness and respect. I dare say that women oppression in all its forms and manifestations must be hit whenever and wherever it pops up its ugly head. It has been both a pleasure and a privilege walking along this journey with my mother and watching a real first-hand account of the life of a Ugandan and an African woman.
In Ginsburg, the world had an opportunity to re-examine its beliefs and notions on gender equality and the role of the courts in “flattening the curve” of gender injustice and inequality. She pursued her cause with tact, wisdom and resolve to make the world a better place. Through profound messages such as, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you”, Ginsburg skilfully won over hearts and minds of new recruits to the cause of feminism.
She demonstrated that the world is not short of the necessary ingredients and raw materials that we can use to negotiate a better deal for women in our society, education institutions, workplaces, political and economic systems. Even in the face of a recurring cancer, she never gave up. That is the strength of a woman.
Living up to the old adage that life’s too mysterious to take too seriously, the late Ginsburg lived a balanced life, appearing in operas and plays whenever her busy schedule permitted. She inspired art, creativity, humour, satire, prose, poetry and film- with her powerful dissenting judgments earning her the witty reputation of “Notorious RBG” (a Tumblr and Internet meme comparing her to American rapper and songwriter, The Notorious BIG). She enjoyed her fun like a true lady- in moderation without excess.
Fare the well, legal giant. Thank you for your service and contribution. We shall always remain indebted to you #RIPRBG.