The Breakfast Table

A Sad Day for the High Court

Dear Dahlia and Paul:

What an extraordinary day in the life of the court this will be!  In the morning hours, the court will announce the final four decisions—all major—of the term. When that work is done, John Paul Stevens will stand up and leave the bench for the very last time.  Then, in the afternoon, the Senate Judiciary Committee will begin hearings that will surely lead to the confirmation of Elena Kagan to a court that will for the first time have three women among its justices.


There may be some cognitive dissonance between the events of the morning and this afternoon. Some senators will demand, as Kagan’s hearing opens, that the nominee make pledges of judicial restraint while noting with approval that the court has announced just this morning that it will pass judgment on the gun restrictions of every elected state and local government in the country. And some senators will also condemn any resort to “policy” in Supreme Court decision-making fresh after a batch of opinions in which nearly all the members of the court are likely to discuss (as they did in the Doe v. Reed case last week, for example) the social or economic consequences or practical effects of competing resolution of the difficult cases that remain to be decided. And the nominee to a position that involves chiefly writing legal opinions will appear to have fewer opinions than any of the senators.
But in a more serious vein, a note of great sadness will accompany the historic events of the day. Only eight of the nine seats on the Supreme Court bench will be occupied. Ruth Ginsburg will not be there. Last night, Martin D. Ginsburg, her husband of half a century, passed away. He was a favorite of the entire Supreme Court community and a close friend to all of the justices. He was a great lawyer, an expert in tax law as both a practitioner at leading law firms and as a scholar and teacher at leading law schools. For these accomplishments alone he deserves to be well-remembered.

But there was something else that was special about Marty Ginsburg. He was a truly great feminist and a pioneer among men. He met Ruth Bader on a blind date when both were undergraduates at Cornell. They married during law school in 1954 and raised two children while juggling complex careers as young lawyers. Marty was the family cook. His ebullience was a perfect fit with Ruth’s restrained dignity. He was, as she often said, her biggest supporter. He was unfailingly devoted to her and to her career. I happened to be there in 1993 when Marty Ginsburg became the first recipient of the Martin Abzug Award given by former member of Congress Bella Abzug in honor of her own husband, who had provided exemplary support to her aspirations. Many men have followed since. But there is a very special place for Marty Ginsburg who was there for his spouse so firmly and so early.