My Turn: Movie lifts spirits of those needing a legal pick-me-up

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For political moderates and those who lean left, it has not recently been a time to rejoice at the news emanating from the nation’s highest court.

Immigrants, labor unions, Muslims, voting rights proponents, and a general sense of fairness and decency took it on the chin, as a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court rocked the legal world with a series of decisions that further magnified the political chasm that a certain someone seems bent on widening day-by-day.

Of course, last week’s news mostly likely would have been different had Merrick Garland served on the Supreme Court, where he rightfully belonged after earning the nomination from President Obama in the spring of 2016.

Garland, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was widely hailed as an excellent choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. A Harvard Law alum, Garland was viewed as a moderate with a strong law-and-order background as the chief prosecutor of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had other ideas, seizing on the moment to hijack the nomination on political grounds, blocking any hearings before the Judiciary Committee until after the election that fall.

Now, in the wake of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s announced retirement from the Supreme Court and the Kavanaugh nomination, McConnell is singing a different political tune, promising to move swiftly, hoping to bring the matter to a vote prior to the mid-term elections this fall.

The hypocrisy of such a move is par for the course in the Republican controlled Congress, where the G.O.P. has prospered in large part due to gerrymandered districts and repeated legislative attacks on voting rights.

With all that as a backdrop, an opportunity arose last Saturday to enjoy a political and legal respite – at the movies.

The documentary film RBG was showing in Royal Oak, some six months after it premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival in Park City.  The film traces the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Brooklyn native who rose to success after winning a series of gender discrimination cases before the high court.

The diminutive jurist was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1993 after his first choice, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, declined the nomination. With her appointment, which was approved by a Senate vote of 96-3, Ginsburg became just the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, historically a male-only bastion until Sandra Day O’Connor broke through the judicial glass ceiling in 1981.

Now 85 and in her 25th year on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was among just a handful of women admitted to haughty Harvard Law School in 1956, quickly rising to the top of her class while earning a coveted spot on the Law Review. She transferred to Columbia University Law School for her senior year after her husband, Marty, a classmate at Harvard Law, landed a job with a New York tax firm.

Throughout law school, Ginsburg juggled the rigors of Ivy League academia with motherhood, setting aside her studies for 4 to 5 hours each day to care for the couple’s first child. The challenge became even greater during her second year at Harvard when her husband was stricken with cancer, a disease that eventually would claim his life in 2010 following a distinguished career as a prominent tax attorney.

Despite her brilliance and academic success, Ginsburg soon discovered that the doors were closed to the top law firms in New York City on gender lines, forcing her to begin her career as a law professor at Rutgers University and a volunteer lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, where she would make her mark in short order.

Somewhat ironically, it would be a few words of early advice from her mother that would help propel Ginsburg to legal fame as a trailblazer for equal opportunity and social justice.

“My mother told me to be a lady, and for her, that meant be your own person, be independent,” Ginsburg said of the family matriarch, who died of cancer the day before her daughter graduated from high school.

She also told her to never let “anger” creep into an argument. Civility, after all, is one of the guiding principles of the legal profession, a fact that Ginsburg has embraced throughout her career.

“You can disagree without being disagreeable,” Ginsburg has repeatedly said over the course of her time on the bench. “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Such words of wisdom, if embraced, could go a long way in bridging the gap that threatens our very political existence today.
 

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