Tributes, condolences and from some quarters, expressions of fear about the future of the Supreme Court, poured in Friday evening from Michigan political leaders as they learned of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ginsburg, 87, a liberal stalwart who had served on the nation’s highest court since 1993, died of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Mark Brewer, an attorney and the longtime former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, cried as he spoke Friday night about Ginsburg’s legacy.
She was to women’s rights what former Justice Thurgood Marshall was to African American rights, Brewer said. Ginsburg crafted the legal strategy and case by case confronted discrimination against women, he added.
“She was creative,” Brewer said. “She was brilliant.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a warrior for justice, a champion for women’s rights, and a fighter for peace,” Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party, said in a statement. “As a Justice of the Supreme Court, she was wise and patient. Her decisions changed the course of history and we are all better having had her serve on the highest court. Our thoughts are with her family and friends today. Rest well, Justice Ginsburg.”
Bob Sedler, a long-time professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, was working in Kentucky as Ginsburg litigated the landmark gender equality cases for which she became known.
Sedler used the precedent Ginsburg set almost immediately to litigate local cases in Kentucky regarding outdated voter registration rules and driver’s license laws that discriminated against women.
“She is beyond memorable,” Sedler said. “Her legacy both as a pioneer in litigating women’s rights and her work on the Supreme Court will long be remembered.”
As a lawyer, Ginsburg will be remembered for her triumphs in battling sex discrimination and, on the Supreme Court, she’ll be known for powerful dissents as “the leader of the liberal bloc” of the Supreme Court, said Brian Kalt, law professor at Michigan State University.
Depending on the future makeup of the court, her dissents could serve as the basis for a liberal majority on the Supreme Court, he said.
“If the liberals have five then they’ll overturn some of those cases where Ginsburg was the dissent and they’ll likely adopt that position for the majority,” Kalt said.
John Bursch, the former Michigan solicitor general, argued before Ginsburg on the Supreme Court 12 times since 2011.
“She was so well-prepared, very witty, asked lots of questions. There was speculation about her health deteriorating, and you could see she was frail but you would never guessed that if you just listened to her speak because her voice was powerful, her words were so incisive.
“And it was fun how much she enjoyed being with her colleagues,” including her friendship with former Justice Antonin Scalia.
At his last argument before the high court in October, Bursch noted a small gesture at the conclusion of arguments by Justice Clarence Thomas who, like Scalia, was on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum from Ginsburg.
“The case is over, everyone stands up, and the clerks part the curtains, and there are a couple of steps the justices have to go down before they can go back down the hallway to their chambers,” Bursch said.
“And standing right here, I was able to see that Justice Thomas was waiting for her with his arm out, so that he could escort her back to her chambers. I thought that was such a beautiful symbol of their ability to have a friendship and be so close, notwithstanding differences they may have had on how cases should be decided.”
History will remember Ginsburg as one of the greatest advocates for women’s rights in U.S. history, starting back in law school when she was among a small number of women in her class who was unable to get a job as a lawyer when she graduated, despite a stellar academic record.
“That didn’t deter her. She became a law professor and she started to litigate. She argued six U.S. Supreme Court cases and won five of them — all involving women’s rights,” he said.
On the court, she authored iconic sex discrimination opinions, including one striking down sex segregation at the Virginia Military Institute, and her fiery dissent in an equal-pay case involving Lilly Ledbetter in which she urged Congress to do something about the matter.
“They did exactly that, and passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act within a short time after that dissent was issued. That is still the act today that ensures that women are paid on the same equal terms as men,” Bursch said.
Ginsburg was also an expert on civil procedure and was “exceptionally good in those cases” involving the rules that all the lawyers live by in the trial court matters that they litigate.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement she was “truly heartbroken at the news of Justice Ginsburg’s passing.”
“Her intellect, her razor sharp wit, and her lifetime of service to our nation made her an inspiration to millions of Americans. I know there are a lot of women who are feeling worried right now about what this means for the future of our country,” Whitmer said.
“The best way to honor Justice Ginsburg’s memory is by making our voices heard at the ballot box this November. Register to vote, request an absentee ballot, and return it quickly,” the governor said. “Let us turn our grief into action, let us choose hope over fear, and let us find the strength to build a stronger America for everyone.”
Members of Michigan’s congressional delegation from both parties expressed sorrow over the associate justice’s death and saluted her long service and legal expertise.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said in a statement that Ginsburg’s death was “absolutely heartbreaking news.”
“Justice Ginsburg was a tireless trailblazer for women and for all without a voice. She will forever be remembered for her devotion to justice and equality & speaking truth to power. Colleen and I send our condolences to Justice Ginsberg’s family.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, wrote on Twitter: “Through her work and her example, she made an indelible mark on our courts and our country. I am forever grateful for her service.” #ThankyouRBG.
“My heart goes out to the family of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as her fellow Justices on the Supreme Court,” Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “U.S. Justice Ginsburg fought cancer with a toughness that inspired all while serving our nation with dignity until she was called home.”
Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, wrote on Twitter: “This country is better because of her commitment to it & we should honor her legacy by fighting for equality and justice as courageously as she did. May she rest in peace.”
Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said in a tweet: “Today we lost a pioneer in the fight for justice in this country.”
Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, noted the justice’s passing on one of the Jewish faith’s holiest days.
“To lose Justice Ginsburg on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, a time when Jews come together to reflect and reinvigorate their commitment to faith and community is terribly bittersweet. The loss of such a powerful woman who left an indelible mark on the legal field is truly painful. But Justice Ginsburg was notoriously tough and never faltered in her pursuit of justice.”
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a Twitter post: “Mourning the loss of not only a fair and strong jurist, but a woman who opened doors wider for everyone. Ruth Bader Ginsberg (sic) fought for justice and equality — deeply American values. RBG not only blazed her own trail in the legal field, but she inspired generations.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, tweeted simply: “Rest in peace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, wrote on Twitter: “RBG will be remembered as a trailblazer and tenacious fighter. She earned respect from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Her work ethic and true grit made her one notorious Supreme Court Justice. Now is a time to remember her and honor her. #Respect #RIPRBG”
Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack also offered her condolences on Facebook: “The nation has lost a tremendous leader. I’m heartbroken. Rest In Peace, my friend.”
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote on Twitter: “Well, this Jewish New Year is totally on-brand for 2020. Rest in Power RBG. You may not be written in the Book of Life, but there will be hundredGasp. I was counting on a few more lives. So sorry. RIP RBG. Thank you for your service as a historic trailblazers of other books written about your incredible legacy.
“Worst New Year Ever.”
Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. Attorney in Detroit, referred to Ginsburg’s long battle against repeated bouts of cancer in her post on Twitter: “Gasp. I was counting on a few more lives. So sorry. RIP RBG. Thank you for your service as a historic trailblazer.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy issued a statement calling Ginsburg “a feminist firebrand who inspired women all over the world to reach the highest heights, to fight the fiercest fights, and to never back down from what is right.”
“I will miss her on the Supreme Court, I will miss her in life, and on the proverbial battlefield. May she truly Rest In Peace for many jobs well done.”
Karen McDonald, the Democratic nominee for Oakland County prosecutor in the Nov. 3 election, also weighed in on Twitter: “RBG you will never be forgotten. We will forever stand on your shoulders. RIP.”
State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, tweeted: “… may her memory be a blessing. Praying for our country.”
Robert Gordon, the director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, once clerked for Ginsburg. In a tweet, he recalled her intense work ethic, which she maintained even while undergoing treatment.
“She left a 3-minute voicemail at 4 am, from the hospital: instructions for the dissent,” he wrote. “She crafted letters precisely, whoever the recipient. She did not let losing get to her, especially when it got to us. On her wall was a print now on mine: Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.”
Ginsburg spoke at the University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium on Feb. 6, 2015.
During the event, she contrasted her legal approach to that of colleague Antonin Scalia, an originalist conservative who died in early 2016 — setting off a controversial battle over the GOP-controlled Senate’s refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace him.
“My approach to the Constitution is influenced by the first three words ‘We the people,’ and if you go back to 1787, who were ‘we the people’? A very select group,” she said.
Ginsburg also addressed her history of health problems and her advanced age during her speech.
“As long as I can do the job at full steam, I will stay in it, but when I begin to slip, as I inevitably will, when that happens that will be the time to go,” she said.
Ginsburg’s passing could set up another bitter battle if President Donald Trump and the GOP-controlled Senate decide to try to fill her seat before a new Congress convenes in January, and before Trump could potentially leave office if he loses the Nov. 3 election to Democratic challenger Joe Biden.
Trump recently released a list of possible candidates to fill an open Supreme Court seat that included federal appeals court Judge Raymond Kethledge, who lives in Oakland County.
Kethledge and Joan Larsen — both serving on the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals — were among 25 potential candidates considered by Trump for the high court in 2018 to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, who retired.
That seat went to Brett Kavanaugh, but legal experts have said they expect Larsen especially would be a contender to replace Ginsburg. Both Michigan Democrats in the Senate voted to confirm Larsen in 2017.
Larsen previously taught at the University of Michigan Law School and served on the Michigan Supreme Court for two years.
In a statement Friday night, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said a nomination from Trump would receive a Senate vote.
Mark Hicks contributed.