You probably remember where you were when you heard the news of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death.
I was in my living room/office/classroom/messy-everything-space working when I heard my teen daughter’s voice: “Nooo!” she sobbed. “I LOVED her!” I tried to seem calm as she peppered me with questions—could the court make abortion illegal, could a new justice help Trump stay in office even if he lost the election? And then, when she was back to TikTok, I poured too large a drink and logged into MoJo’s digital newsroom.
It was buzzing. Within minutes of when the world learned of the justice’s passing, editors and reporters were chiming in—from walking the dog, from soccer practice, from putting babies to bed, from Rosh Hashanah services—to see how they could help. Within 15 minutes the first story went up, an in-depth piece on Ginsburg that our ace legal reporter Stephanie Mencimer had prepared ahead of time. (Prewriting obituaries is one of every reporter’s stranger duties.) In the piece, Stephanie hearkened back to an interview RBG gave in 2014, reflecting on her “lonely” years as the only woman on the court.
“No one wants to be a one-at-a-time curiosity, and that’s what I was…It wasn’t the way the court should be at this time in our history.” In the same interview, Ginsburg also said that people frequently asked her how many women on the Supreme Court would be “enough.” She famously replied, “When there are nine.”
Within half an hour of the news breaking, a dozen reporters and editors were brainstorming coverage. Reporter Fernanda Echavarri volunteered to watch the president’s rally (a tough assignment at the best of times) to see what he might say when he learned the news; it turned out , as she reported, that for two hours no one on the president’s staff felt confident enough in his reaction while onstage to let him know. Reporter Tim Murphy pulled together a staggering list of Republican senators who have said a Supreme Court vacancy should not be filled in an election year, and then turned around another piece pointing out the hypocrisy in the argument, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, that a nine-member court is needed in case of a contested election.
Cruz, a former Texas solicitor general who clerked for William Rehnquist, knows perfectly well how the Supreme Court works and doesn’t. Which is to say he knows perfectly well the court can function with eight justices, and that doing so hardly poses some kind of existential threat in an election year. You don’t have to take my word for this, you can take Cruz’s. In 2016, when the death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the chamber one down—Scalia died in February, seven months earlier in the cycle than his good friend Ginsburg—Cruz was adamant the court would be fine.
And then there was David Corn—MoJo‘s Washington bureau chief who, after covering DC for more than three decades, knows exactly how politicians respond in a moment like this. That night he published one of the most trenchant pieces of analysis I’ve seen on what’s next:
What is coming, at least as the Republicans see it, is a grand political clash. They have been hellbent on reshaping the entire federal judiciary and especially drool over the prospect of locking the highest court into a right-wing course that will last decades and counter demographic trends that favor Democrats. This is their Holy Grail…Here’s something Trump can campaign on for the next six and a half weeks, without breaking a sweat or fielding a tough question. It’s his lifeline. A cure for his coronavirus problem.
Democrats must realize that they will not win by writing well-reasoned op-eds. Cable host tirades will be of little use. Panel discussions will be irrelevant. Clever ads highlighting GOP hypocrisy won’t do the trick. Angry editorials in the New York Times won’t help. Not even a freckin’ David Brooks column (“conservatives should realize they have an interest in preserving democratic norms!“) will do them any good. Passionate speeches on the floor of the US Senate? Fuggedabout it. This is about power.
I’ll let you read, and make up your mind about, the rest of David’s argument here. There are so many other RBG stories I could recommend to you right now (starting with Kara Voght’s smart look at how expanding the Supreme Court is gaining traction among Democrats)—it’s just extraordinary how the team keeps cranking out smart reporting to help make sense of the overwhelming nature of this moment.
We’d also love to hear your stories of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Let us know what RBG meant to you and we will share some of your thoughts with other readers, because never have we needed to hear from each other more than this year.
One of the remarkable things about 2020 is that every single punch that it’s delivered has shown how the big challenges we’re confronting are all connected: Among the cases before the Supreme Court this term is one that could destroy Obamacare and strip millions of coverage—in the middle of a pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans already. Yes, 200,000. And indeed, amid the frenzy of Supreme Court headlines, senior editor Kiera Butler and the reporters who have been working on our Pandemic-Proofing America series (which focuses on long-term solutions) also pulled together expert perspectives on the grim threshold of 200,000 coronavirus deaths that America passed this weekend. That story ends with this somber note from Boston Medical Center infectious disease specialist Nahid Bhadelia:
“Imagine then that we are looking at a country with some of the highest resources per capita where a small group of ill-informed politicians swayed large swath of the population to believe that there was no pandemic and hence became the largest producer of COVID-19 deaths globally. In another reality, the world would be decrying this ill-informed nation and looking to make humanitarian interventions to help.”
I tend to be an optimist, but as I wrote this note to you—watching our nation’s leaders pledging to tear down a pathbreaking woman’s legacy with her body barely cold—I struggled to see the light at the end of an ever-longer tunnel. Then, late at night, the teen emerged from her room again. “I want to show you something,” she said. She had just watched Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Instagram, sharing her thoughts on the election and RGB, and played me a clip:
“Yes, our democracy is at a faint heartbeat. It was broken even before this administration began. But so long as possibilities remain before us, so long as we can save lives, we have an obligation to generations who will come after us to do everything we can to grow the future.”
The teen’s eyes sparkled and I thought: If she can see a future, so can the rest of us.