Monday, September 14, 2009

dirty job

I always thought of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as birdlike -- small, fragile, hollow of bone. Unlike Mr. Hoo who is a Supreme Court junkie and voraciously follows each session and season, I don't know the quirks and predilections of our nine justices: I know only their rulings, their dissents, their precedent making and citing as a mass.

Which may be why I wasn't expecting her strength. She is wiry, yes, and petite; Bader Ginsburg stepped onto the stage at Spertus last night wearing a jeweled open throat v-neck which I only remark upon because it was unsettling and unexpected to see bare a throat that is usually bound up by lace. She wore a black diaphanous shawl over her shoulders, wing-like.

She was there to speak on From Benjamin to Brandeis to Breyer: Is There a Jewish Seat on the U.S. Supreme Court? (her host, Spertus, is a Jewish learning and cultural organization in Chicago) and she delivered a solid history lesson on Judah Benjamin, a soon-to-be Confederate who was the first Jew to decline a Supreme Court nomination in favor of a Senate Seat, and then on the anti-semitism that Brandeis faced even within the court (his peer McReynolds would habitually leave the conference room when Brandeis spoke and refused to be photographed with his peer).

Her lecture was serviceable but unremarkable. It was in the question and answer session that my crush grew and during which it became apparent that she's no sparrow -- she's a gryphon. Fierce, watchful, talons at the ready, guarding our golden hoard of Justice from thieving self-interests.

Slow and deliberative in her response, as I suppose anyone might be on whose words the fate of weighty matters relies, she spoke with careful conviction and supreme confidence without a shade of arrogance on the questions put to her -- Should a judge rely more on empathy or impartiality? Did she expect that Roe v. Wade was headed for an upset? In which direction did the Court's sympathies lie regarding death penalty cases? What about that Hilary movie?

She spoke of how she keeps in her chambers the words in Hebrew from Deuteronomy: "Justice, Justice; Thou Should Pursue Justice," and it's true that every opinion she shared last night was steeped in this conviction. It was a like a fragrance that couldn't be laundered out, no matter the succession of spin cycles. It pervaded every word, chosen and delivered.

Whether she came by the unwavering solidity of her character through an early predisposition or through a life of public service in which she has pursued justice as her day job, I don't know. But I hung on every word. It was impossible not to. Her conviction that public discussion is a public duty. Her confession that death penalty cases and the 11th hour vigils that are a matter of course when one comes before the court are "the one part of the job I dislike. I dislike it intensely," and yet she will not recuse herself from these cases as other Justices have done (on the grounds that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment), because she feels it's important to have a voice in these matters.

It's a dirty job, and I'm glad we've got a dame on the bench to get it done.

The Opposite of Law »
Nothing Like a Dame »


karigee said...

Sounds amazing, and you've made it tangible. Thank you.

anniemcq said...

She'd be at my fantasy dinner table. I'd sit her right next to you, because you have such a great way with words, and ask the best questions.

Oh, and by the way: your writing gets better and better.

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