Heroes Never Die: How RBG Can Live On

Updated: Oct 22

Ideals are like the stars: we never reach them, but, like the mariners of the sea, we chart our course by them. ~Carl Schurz[1]


As an appellate lawyer and a woman standing on the shoulders of countless pioneers who paved my way, I greatly admire Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or RBG, as she was dubbed.[2] But I had not studied her writings beyond scholarly summaries in seminars or journals. The two times I heard her speak live were from afar, allowing for no interaction. I also had little occasion to apply the equal rights jurisprudence for which she was best known in my business-focused appellate practice. So, while aware of her ground-breaking work and well-deserved celebrity, I found my daily life unaffected in any palpable way by RBG.


Or so I thought. Her passing affected me so immensely, shaking me to the core, that I felt as if a protective, guiding hand had been lifted from not only my head, but from our country’s back, leaving us both adrift. Then I heard Dean Erwin Chemerinsky say during a seminar about the Supreme Court’s upcoming October 2020 term that we are grieving that much more for RBG because she was a hero at a time when our profession no longer has that many heroes. It shouldn’t have taken someone else saying it, but I realized then that RBG was a true real-life hero, one who represented my aspiration to be a hero myself.


Her superpower was her brain, reflected in her pen. In eighth grade, she wrote an editorial for her school newspaper about the five greatest documents the world had known to date. With clear-eyed brevity, she made the case for why the United Nations Charter should join the Ten Commandments, the Magna Carta, the British Bill of Rights, and the U.S. Declaration of Independence as documents that benefitted humanity “as a result of their fine ideals and principles.”[3]


Her ability to write and speak persuasively continued to be on full display in her teachings, speeches, and writings as a law professor at Rutgers University and Columbia Law School; a winning appellate advocate at the ACLU; a judge on the D.C. Circuit; an associate justice on the Supreme Court; and a sought-after public speaker and officiant throughout her career. Surprising for someone whose words and work proved so revolutionary, she strategically advocated incremental change, one that invited everyone along instead of dragging them to a desired conclusion about equality under the law in various respects—parental estate administration, dependent benefits for military spouses, social security and tax deductions, access to public education, pay discrimination, voting rights, and reproductive justice, among others.[4]


Even in her powerful dissents, she tried to persuade instead of berating the majority, using accessible, everyday English to discuss why the other justices’ interpretation of complex legislation or jurisprudence was mistaken. In her influential dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, she candidly noted that her male colleagues did “not comprehend or [were] indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination” and put the “ball” in Congress’s court “to correct this Court’s parsimonious reading of Title VII.”[5] Successfully so, with Congress’s enactment in 2009 of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Six years later, in Shelby County v. Holder, she explained that invalidating an anti-discrimination mechanism in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that applied to historically segregated Southern States 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.”[6] How RBG’s dissenting words will inspire legislators and advocates to reinstate or strengthen voter protection provisions remains to be seen.


Though she refused to use the traditional phrase I “respectfully” dissent, RBG seemed to do so because she genuinely respected the colleagues with whom she disagreed. It seemed hypocritical to her to pretend that she admired the majority’s reasoning while systematically explaining why it was fundamentally mistaken or incorrect. Based on unspoken mutual respect, she bravely and candidly disagreed with her colleagues’ analysis while trying not to criticize their motives or intelligence. In an era of growing incivility in political, legal, and civic discourse, RBG modeled how to consistently take the moral high ground without being disingenuous or artificial.


Equally heroic was what some sexists might label her ladylike humility or feminine sensibility, but is actually her enduring grace as a person. RBG acknowledged her limitations in the kitchen, and sought advice from her father-in-law on balancing marriage, motherhood, and career. She advocated for a marriage built on intellectual respect and romantic love, believing that the two were inseparable. On many occasions, RBG switched the spotlight from herself to praise and thank her personal heroes, including her mother, her parents-in-law, and her husband, as well as her professional role models, including Professor Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell and ACLU advocates Pauli Murray and Dorothy Kenyon. Instead of taking offense that women’s wardrobe choices garner public attention in a way that men’s don’t, RBG even incorporated her iconic fashion sense and “dissent” collars to amplify her feminist message. She assumed the mantle of her unsolicited celebrity graciously, helping more than one generation reimagine a life in the law as fulfilling and cool all at once.


How can RBG not live on if we, and hopefully future generations of lawyers, continue to chart our course by her example? That need not mean enduring every personal tragedy with dignity; overcoming overt employment discrimination despite being valedictorian; writing the definitive textbook on sex discrimination; co-founding a path-breaking ACLU project; marrying your staunchest admirer for love and all the right reasons; surviving and nursing others through multiple bouts of cancer; ascending to the male-dominated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court; and making it hip to be a petite, bespectacled legal nerd. Rather, honoring RBG’s legacy could just mean pretending to be slightly deaf to unkind words or criticism, as her mother-in-law advised and as RBG confessed to doing personally and professionally; choosing persuasion over accusation in our speech and writing, as RBG did skillfully from at least the eighth grade; and striving for moderation even in our impassioned efforts to create lasting change in our chosen sphere, as RBG modeled in her thoughtful appellate advocacy and careful judicial dissents.


For me, how I should try to carry on RBG’s legacy was brought home yet again by someone else’s words, this time, those of my nine-year-old daughter. More concerned with perfecting her gymnastics front flips and pulling off a soccer hat trick than reflecting on equality under the law, the youngest member of our family was nevertheless visibly moved by a KPBS film tribute to RBG that our family recently watched. After being quiet through dinner that night, she said decisively, “I wish we could dissent from someone’s death. If so, I dissent from RBG’s death.” It made me smile, cry, and marvel at her elegant ability to simplify how I could transform into meaningful action my unavailing grief for someone I mistakenly thought never touched my life tangibly. Because I now aspire to persuade, oppose, and make tactical decisions as an advocate by asking what my hero, RBG, would do in that situation, I proudly join in my daughter’s dissent.


Rupa G. Singh is a certified appellate specialist who handles complex civil appeals and critical motions in state and federal court at Niddrie Addams Fuller Singh LLP, San Diego’s only appellate boutique. She is a past president of FBA-San Diego, a former Ninth Circuit staff attorney, and a self-proclaimed RBG groupie. She is married to a telecommunications engineer, and the proud mother of three would-be activists.

[1] https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/6443-carl-schurz. Schurz was a German-American political leader, journalist, orator, and U.S. Senator at the turn of the last century (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Carl-Schurz).


[2] The name came from an NYU law student’s blog titled the Notorious RBG, likening Justice Ginsburg to the rapper Notorious BIG after her powerful dissent in a seminal voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[3] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Mary Harnett, and Wendy Williams, In My Own Words, p. 10 (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

[4] Reed v. Reed, 404 U.S. 71 (1971) (no automatic preference for males as estate administrators); Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973) (female officer’s spouse entitled to same medical benefits as male officer’s); Moritz v. Comm’r of Internal Rev., 469 F.2d 466 (1972) (caregiver deduction available to unmarried men, not just women or widowers), review den., 93 S. Ct. 2291 (1973); Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975) (provision giving widows but not widowers social security benefits while caring for minor children unlawful); Craig v. Boren, 429 U.S. 190 (1976) (statute allowing women to buy beer at 18 and men at 21 discriminates on the basis of sex); United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515 (1996) (exclusively male public military school violates equal protection).

[5] 550 U.S. 618, 661 (2007) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting), overruled by legislative action (Jan. 29, 2009). [6] 570 U.S. 529, 590 (2013) (Ginsburg, J., dissenting).

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