A Legal Giant: RBG’s Profound Impact on the Berkeley Community

Though only 5’1, she was considered a legal giant. Some called her notorious and it stuck, her affectionate public nickname becoming the Notorious RBG. By overcoming formidable challenges, professionally and personally, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened doors for millions of women in America and fought for justice until her last days. 

As a young woman, Ginsburg was already serving her community and proving her excellence. Being born Jewish in 1933, she was at a disadvantage from the start. “She had a lot of reasons to be cynical and she didn’t give in to that,” said Hasmig Minassian, an Ethnic Studies and Social Living teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS). Minassian recalled a middle school newspaper article that Ginsburg wrote in admiration of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “13 year old Ruth Bader Ginsburg chose to look at that instead of looking at the nuclear bombs and the other terrible ways the world could be. If you’re holding that up to the light at 13, then of course at 30, 40, 50, and 80, you are holding the light for so many people all around the world.”

Apart from her great optimism, Ginsburg’s determination was one of her greatest attributes that set her apart as a prominent figure in all of our lives. “She was [one of] the only women in her law school class and for so long she was the only woman on the Supreme Court. I really admire her bravery and the confidence that she had to hold that weight on her shoulders,” said Jennifer Chou, a Reproductive Justice & Gender Equity Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California. Having broken so many boundaries, Ginsburg paved the way for women all over America to expand their ambitions and blaze new trails.

Strategy in court was Ginsburg’s strong suit. Chou commented that Ginsburg’s thoughtfulness when it came to the happenings of the court was innovative, especially during the birth of the Women’s Rights Movement. “She represented a male plaintiff to represent gender equity, at a time when a lot of people were thinking about this [exclusively] as a women’s issue.” 

“What I loved about her and the way she held herself as a justice was how she interpreted the constitution. The way she carried herself while looking at cases was very impressive to me,” said Anna Dua, a senior and president of the Berkeley Delegation of Youth & Government (Y&G). 

With Ginsburg gone, the civil liberties she represented are at risk. “So many of the basic protections we currently enjoy on the basis of sex and gender were directly linked to Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said Chou. For those working in these areas of the law, it’s as if their foundations have been shaken. “For the future of the supreme court and the future of reproductive rights, it really is a loss.” 

Justice Ginsburg was the voice and the hero of disadvantaged groups. She carried the weight of their civil rights on her shoulders. Her recent passing raises an important question: how can we, as a society, continue to advocate for these rights after the loss of such a critical figure?

“We have to be organizing, on the ground, with our neighbors and our community members and we have to be thinking beyond just passing laws. We have to think about systematic structural changes,” says Chou. She feels it is critical that we do everything in our power to delay the confirmation of Trump’s nominee, Amy Coney Barret, who is a popular lawyer and judge among conservative Christians. The ACLU opposes this nomination, and has already sprung to action. “We are looking very closely at the constitutional issues that could come up with this vote, and how it proceeds,” said Chou.

According to Chou, participating in movements like this is a crucial step for citizens if they want their voices to be heard. “It’s important that our government officials know that we are watching them, that we expect them to abide by the Constitution as they engage in this process, and that we will hold them accountable on election day.”

Whether it means calling representatives, working in the polls, or encouraging community members to vote, social justice advocates agree that Berkeley must stay on its toes. “We need to take this and get even more driven by it. [We cannot] see this as a loss instead of motivating us to actually do something,” Dua declared. 

Dua encourages BHS students not to just stand by and watch this election. “The majority of us can’t vote, so it’s very frustrating. But it also drives [us] to do more, learn more, and think and talk to people.” No matter the age, people have power to make a difference.

“Whenever people like Ruth Bader Ginsburg die, it feels like they’re passing the baton to all of us who are working in the ways that she worked, for justice,” said Minassian. The first step is to continue to fight for what Ginsburg fought for, collaboratively. Her passing has made it clear that those who want transformational changes cannot solely rely on the court or on a single person. 

Minassian reflected on Ginsburg’s grace and the idea that if we follow her example we can get through this difficult time as a community. She concluded, “We need to fight hard, to improve, and also not fall into the trap of cynicism. She kept on fighting, she was fierce, but she was not negative.”

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