Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933-2020) / Notes on Dissent

From My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (quoting her Senate Confirmation Hearing Opening Statement, July 1993):

“Let me try to state in a nutshell how I view the work of judging. My approach, I believe, is neither liberal nor conservative. Rather, it is rooted in the place of the judiciary, of judges, in our democratic society. The Constitution’s preamble speaks first of ‘We, the People,’ and then of their elected representatives. The judiciary is third in line and it is placed apart from the political fray so that its members can judge fairly, impartially, in accordance with the law, and without fear about the animosity of any pressure group.”

From My Own Words by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (quoting her speech “The Role of Dissenting Opinions,” July 2013):

“My remarks concern the role of dissenting opinions in U.S. appellate courts generally, and the U.S. Supreme Court in particular. It is a subject I have been obliged to think about more than occasionally in recent Terms….

My experience confirms that there is nothing better than an impressive dissent to lead the author of the majority opinion to refine and clarify her initial circulation….

Another genre of dissent looks not to a distant future day, but seeks immediate action from the political branches of government — Congress and the president. Dissents of this order aim to engage or energize the public and propel prompt legislative overruling of the Court’s decision….

From In Defense of Justice: The Greatest Dissents of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Sarah Wainwright (quoting Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (June 2013):

“[A] governing political coalition has an incentive to prevent changes in the existing balance of voting power….

When voting is racially polarized, efforts by the ruling party to pursue that incentive ‘will inevitably discriminate against a racial group.'”


I’ve been away from blogging (and photography) for a few weeks, after I decided to educate myself on some political issues that have gotten a lot of attention since earlier this summer. I was triggered, I think, by hearing the president of the United States float the idea of delaying the November 3 election because, ostensibly, of the pandemic. You may not have even noticed that that idea didn’t get much traction — since it didn’t get much traction. It held our attention through a few hours of news coverage, then dissolved of its own failed logic: the president can’t delay elections that are run by states; he behaves as if the pandemic is barely real so he can’t use that as a reason; and, more psychotically, the whole point was to just throw out a trial balloon to test reactions and stir up some chaos and confusion. The president then flipped to denigrating electoral procedures — focusing, if you could call it that, on unproven assertions about absentee ballot fraud — a theme he reiterates almost daily and will likely continue to do so well into November.

You see, it’s like this: intentionally creating confusion about election procedures and insisting in advance that an election is fraudulent are classic examples of voter intimidation — potentially illegal if you or I tried to do it publicly — and that’s what got me interested in setting aside a few weeks to learn more. I’ll come back to that in some future posts — I’ve been surprised at how little I knew about voter suppression in the United States — as I try to organize and write about what I’ve been learning. For now, though, just keep this in mind: prior to the railings of this madman, you probably didn’t find yourself worrying about whether there was integrity in elections you participated in — largely because you were (intuitively, perhaps) aware that state and local governments and election boards were quite accomplished at managing election procedures that they continuously seek to improve and have followed for decades.

Back in the early twenty-first century when I was working on my history degree, I took a couple of courses on constitutional interpretation that occupied me for the better part of a year. I don’t lay claim to any inordinate expertise because I took those classes — but I will say that the experience of studying the United States Constitution and deeply reading dozens of Supreme Court opinions was singularly valuable, the kind of learning experience where you realize you’ve been forever changed by what you learned. If you’ve never read a Supreme Court opinion, you’re missing out: embedded in the Court’s writings you’ll find the history of this country — in a literary and narrative form unlike any other — and with it, the history of the struggles of millions of people as they worked toward greater justice, for all. The American Bar Association has a short summary describing how to read a Supreme Court opinion — though I would personally shorten that even more to say that the syllabus (which states the facts of a case), the main opinion, the disposition (or judgement rendered), and the concurring and dissenting opinions are the most relevant to someone reading an opinion without legal training.

Coincidentally (the coincidence is inconsequential), I was reading in Carol Anderson’s book One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent in the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder when I heard she had died — which is why I chose her quotes about that case and the importance of dissenting opinions to lead this post. The Supreme Court’s majority decision in the Shelby County case invalidated provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states with a history of disenfranchising voters along racial lines to get permission — or pre-clearance — from the Department of Justice before changing their voting procedures. In her dissent (which you can read here), Justice Ginsburg discusses the problems of ongoing voter suppression in some detail — providing a summary of contemporary and typical examples — and is certainly still relevant since the Trump administration and campaign have launched over 200 lawsuits that potentially interfere with voting access, procedures, and ballot counting for the November 3, 2020 election.

In a season when we seem politically unmoored, with many normal frames of reference out of reach or completely gone, we would do well to remember Justice Ginsburg’s belief that dissent could be used to spur legislative action and even challenge the very court she served on. And, as we try to move forward, to remember that dissent in itself has a way of creating clarity about uncertain times. As Sarah Wainwright says of her in In Defense of Justice:

“Ginsburg reads the Constitution for the principles it espouses, she looks at society for what it is, and she sees the yawning gap between the two. With every dissent, she fights — if not to fill it, then to light the path for those who follow….

“To the fight, she brings nothing but a pen….”

Rest in peace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Your memory, and your work, will live on.



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Remembering John Lewis (1940-2020)

From Across That Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change by John Lewis (1940-2020):

We have come a great distance as a society, but we still have a great distance to go. The progress we take for granted today brought on by the ‘successes of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement is just one more step down a very long road toward the realization of our spiritual destiny as a nation of ‘freedom and justice for all.’ There is still much more work to do….

“Remember how we thought the election of President Obama meant we had finally created a postracial America, a place where the problems that have haunted us for so long were finally silenced? Nobody says that anymore. We no longer dwell in that daydream. We were shaken to realism by the harshness of what we have witnessed in the last few years — the vilification of President Obama, a drive to wreck his legacy and undo the progress we have made as a nation in the last hundred years, a disdain for the sick and the poor, militarization of the police, and the weaponizing of government not to serve as an advocate, but as an agent of oppression and compliance….

“It’s taken a long time, but finally the people are awakening to the truth: the truth of their responsibility for the democratic process…. The people are gathering their forces, reengaging, and applying pressure….

“I have seen this restlessness among the people before. It was in another millennium, another decade, and at another time in our history, but it pushed through America like a storm…. This mighty wind made a fundamental shift in the moral character of our nation that has reached every sector of our society. And this history lends us one very powerful reminder today: Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society….

“What is the purpose of a nation if not to empower human beings to live better together than they could individually? When government fails to meet the basic needs of humanity for food, shelter, clothing, and even more important — the room to grow and evolve — the people will begin to rely on one another, to pool their resources and rise above the artificial limitations of tradition or law. Each of us has something significant to contribute to society be it physical, material, intellectual, emotional, or spiritual. Each of us is born for a reason, to serve a divine purpose. If the structures of our lives do not contribute to that purpose or if they complicate our ability to live, to be free and to be happy, or even worse, if they lead to the confines of oppression, then we seek change, sometimes radical change, even revolution, to satisfy the yearning of our souls….

“Each generation must continue to struggle and begin where the last left off. The sprouting of activist groups and angry sentiments represents a growing sense of discontent in America and around the world. These human beings represent a growing feeling of dissatisfaction that the community of nations is spending the people’s resources on more bombs, missiles, and guns and not enough on human needs. People are crying out. They want to see the governments of the world’s nations humanize their policies and practices. They want to see business leaders and their corporations be more humane and more concerned about the problems that affect the whole of the world’s population, rather than just the overrepresented rich….

“The most important lesson I have learned in the fifty years I have spent working toward the building of a better world is that the true work of social transformation starts within. It begins inside your own heart and mind, because the battleground of human transformation is really, more than any other thing, the struggle within the human consciousness to believe and accept what is true. Thus to truly revolutionize our society, we must first revolutionize ourselves. We must be the change we seek if we are to effectively demand transformation from others. It is clear that the pot is being stirred and people are beginning to breathe in the essences of change that will lead the soul to act. Who will emerge at the forefront of this struggle in the twenty-first century? Perhaps it will be you….”



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“Think Different”


Here’s to the crazy ones,
The misfits, the rebels,
The troublemakers,
The round pegs in the square holes,
The ones who see things differently.

They’re not fond of rules
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
Glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.

Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.

While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world
Are the ones who do. – Steve Jobs, from the video below:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…. Everything else is secondary.”

Steve Jobs, from: “You’ve got to find what you love

Source: Remembering Steve Jobs by Jason Kottke.

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