Very rarely has the demise of a judge assumed such proportions of loss and anxiety over what next, as the recent passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.
RBG, as she was popularly known, was a champion of women’s rights and her work in the field, sustained for decades, was instrumental in ensuring gender equality before the law, in the US. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; in 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Her demise in September 2020 has left liberal political groups nervous given both the nature of conservative politics visible since the last US presidential elections and attempts to enhance the conservative element in the country’s Supreme Court. The latter assumes importance because in the system of checks and balances that is democracy, the judiciary plays a major role – it is often the final corrective force – and its dominance by any particular social, cultural or political flavor provides scope to change the character of a country temporarily. On the other hand, judges are human too.
Uniquely, the exploration of what makes judges what they are is as much fleshed out as the life of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in RBG, the 2018 documentary film on her, currently available on Netflix. It is an excellent film about a journey in law and women’s rights, commencing in times when American law firms rarely hired a woman lawyer and the approach of law reflected society’s treatment of women, as subservient to men. This was despite the constitution promising equality. Starting with the case of a woman air force officer denied housing allowance for no reason other than her gender; RBG worked her way through several cases – including those seeking gender equality for men – to help lay the legal framework for a more just society. The documentary sheds light on her personal life; family, the professional rapport she shared with colleagues holding opposing political views and her eventual rise in old age to the status of an icon, a strong supporter of equality. We learn of not merely the cases she won but also the cases in which her opinion was minority and she registered her dissent. The words of dissent help us understand her position. Don’t miss this film. There is no better time to watch it than now when world over, the gains of liberal politics and diverse society are being undermined by conservative forces. Not to mention – it doesn’t matter if the subject is from another country; when it comes to democracy, the experience of one democratic nation is lesson for itself and others.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)