“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” is a quotation from a work by John Donne (1572-1631), in which he explores the interconnectedness of humanity. He wrote the line in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: The longer quote to put this into context is, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”
This quote certainly applies this week to the death of Ruth Bador Ginsburg. While the bell tolls for her, it also tolls for all Americans.
We have lost a giant. Justice Ginsburg served almost three decades on the Supreme Court, having been nominated by President Clinton at the suggestion of his wife, Hillary. Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court opinions gave voice to those fighting for equal rights and opportunities. Ginsburg herself came out of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and as a young lawyer, she argued a number of key gender equality cases in the courts before eventually being nominated to a federal appeals court in 1980 and then the Supreme Court in 1993.
In one of her first cases, United States v. Virginia, that considered whether the Virginia Military Institute could continue to exclude women from what was then an all-male institution, she wrote in her majority opinion, “Generalizations about ‘the way women are,’ estimates of what is appropriate for most women, no longer justify denying opportunity to women whose talent and capacity place them outside the average description.” All too often, however, many of Ginsburg’s most memorable opinions were dissents, in which she wrote for the losing side. In 2007, Ginsburg broke with tradition and read her dissent aloud to bring attention to the gender pay gap. The case, Ledbetter v. Goodyear, was about a retired Goodyear employee, who sued the company for gender discrimination after she discovered that throughout her 19 years at the company, she had been systematically paid less than her male counterparts. After being on the losing side of a 5 to 4 decision, Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to pass legislation that would overturn the court’s decision. One of the first bills signed into by President Barack Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, doing just that. In 2014, Ginsburg vehemently dissented in yet another women’s rights decision by the court’s conservative majority. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court ruled that companies could, on religious grounds, refuse to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that health insurance plans cover birth control. She wondered, “Where is the stopping point? “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work?”
America would be a far more tolerant, compassionate and equal country if all of her votes represented the majority opinion. She was in the minority when the voting right act was decimated in Shelby County v. Holder. In her dissenting opinion, she wrote, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Her intellect, her concern for fairness and equality for all will be missed. That all “are created equal” appears in the Declaration of Independence but these words do not appear in the Constitution, a major omission. The Liberal interpretation of the Constitution tends to be more flexible and open to interpretation. Liberals tend to see the Constitution as a living document, that is something that can evolve and change with the times. While we often cite the wisdom of the founding fathers, they never imagined a country where women and slaves would enjoy equal rights with white male landowners. Our society has evolved. A very significant majority now accept that women and persons of color do deserve equal treatment. Unfortunately, a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives will never interpret the Constitution as providing these rights to all. A conservative Supreme Court going forward will be out of touch with the majority of Americans, which does not bode well for a unified populace. I’m afraid it will lead to more strife and conflict. I’m afraid that the bell also tolls for our Democracy. It will not survive another Conservative on the Supreme Court.
-Dick Gale, President
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