Gingsburg’s Legacy and Our Innate Desire for Justice

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Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (/ˈbeɪdər ˈɡɪnzbɜːrɡ/; born Joan Ruth Bader; March 15, 1933, died yesterday on September 18, 2020. She was an American jurist who served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1993 until her death in 2020. She was nominated by President Bill Clinton and was generally viewed as belonging to the liberal wing of the Court. Ginsburg was the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Ginsburg was born to Jewish immigrant parents in the Flatbush neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York City, in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression. 

I do not share her Jewish faith and am a devout Muslim, but I believe, I do share with her a strong desire and craving for social justice regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, social status or sexual orientation. The other element I find common with her is that she was a graduate of Cornell University and two of my sons have had the honor to study at the Cornell University.

Following O’Connor’s retirement in 2006 and until Sonia Sotomayor joined the Court in 2009, she was the only female justice on the Supreme Court. During that time, Ginsburg became more forceful with her dissents, which were noted by legal observers and in popular culture. Ginsburg authored notable majority opinions, including United States v. Virginia (1996), Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), and Friends of the Earth, Inc. v. Laidlaw Environmental Services, Inc. (2000).

In the 17th century, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the natural condition of humanity as “every man against every man”. But more recently, research on primates is suggesting that we are naturally hard-wired for collaboration and communality.

In primatologist Frans de Waal’s fascinating TED talk, he brings up convincing evidence of collaboration and empathy in primates, such as chimpanzees, our closest relatives in the animal world. Even more interestingly, de Waal also came across the natural existence of reciprocity – the notion of give-and-take and mutual dependence – which, he says, underpins humankind’s innate sense of fairness and justice.

It is a captivating argument, this idea that a sense of equality is naturally imprinted onto our social DNA. Instinctively, we expect to be treated fairly. Instinctively, because of our natural capacity for empathy, we recoil against exploitation and injustice. And instinctively, we gave up unfettered independence to belong to a community, not only to ensure collective survival, but also to nurture one another towards greater productivity.[1]

Today let me highlight only one aspect of Ginsburg’s achievements. Ginsburg authored the court’s opinion in United States v. Virginia518 U.S. 515 (1996), which struck down the Virginia Military Institute‘s (VMI) male-only admissions policy as violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. VMI is a prestigious, state-run, military-inspired institution that did not admit women. For Ginsburg, a state actor such as VMI could not use gender to deny women the opportunity to attend VMI with its unique educational methods.[68] Ginsburg emphasized that the government must show an “exceedingly persuasive justification” to use a classification based on sex.[69]Commissioned portrait of Ginsburg in 2000

Ginsburg dissented in the court’s decision on Ledbetter v. Goodyear550 U.S. 618 (2007), a case where plaintiff Lilly Ledbetter filed a lawsuit against her employer claiming pay discrimination based on her gender under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a 5–4 decision, the majority interpreted the statute of limitations as starting to run at the time of every pay period, even if a woman did not know she was being paid less than her male colleague until later. Ginsburg found the result absurd, pointing out that women often do not know they are being paid less, and therefore it was unfair to expect them to act at the time of each paycheck. She also called attention to the reluctance women may have in male-dominated fields to making waves by filing lawsuits over small amounts, choosing instead to wait until the disparity accumulates.[70] As part of her dissent, Ginsburg called on Congress to amend Title VII to undo the court’s decision with legislation.[71] Following the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, making it easier for employees to win pay discrimination claims, became law.[72][73] Ginsburg was credited with helping to inspire the law.[71][73]

I believe that we can see most if not all human social, political, religious and military struggles as our pursuit for greater justice in our societies.

If we pursue our social and religious lives through the prism of justice then our heroes and heroines will not be limited to those who share our religious beliefs or dogma, then we will genuinely appreciate the stature of heroes with whom we do not share religious traditions. In this perspective Ruth Ginsburg shines as one of the greatest souls that our continent of Americas has known.

I believe all religious traditions should be studied through the prism of justice for all human, the creation of One God, rather than as a rigid paradigm of dogma. With that perspective i will share the pursuit of justice in the Muslim paradigm and highlight the same from other religious paradigms in the comment section.

References

  1. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1121516/human-desire-equality-innate-science-suggests

Additional suggested reading for pursuit of Justice in the Muslim tradition

Prophet Muhammad recognized as a great law-giver by US Supreme court, since 1935

Hollywood Actress Emilie Francois, Now a Muslim, Speaks of Social Justice in Islam

Prof. John Makdisi traces the Islamic Origins of the Common Law

The Concept of Justice in Islam by Sir Zafrulla Khan

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