Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at age 87 on Sept. 18 after more than 27 years of service.
After many recurring cancer diagnoses, Ginsburg died of complications of widespread pancreatic cancer, the Supreme Court said in a press release.
President Donald Trump now has the opportunity to fill the Supreme Court Justice seat with an appointee before the presidential election in November — a move that the Republican-majority Senate would support, according to a press release from U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
On Saturday Sept. 26, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat.
Ginsburg, born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, tied first in her graduating class from Columbia Law School. While attending school, she cared for her young daughter and her husband who had testicular cancer.
In 1993, Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton, making her mark as the second female justice in U.S. history.
Like many other Americans, Cal Poly students and professors commemorated Ginsburg’s impact and discussed what her death means for the nation’s future.
Philosophy sophomore Esme Lipton’s dream to become a civil rights attorney after college was sparked by the 2018 “RBG” documentary, a film that encapsulated Ginsburg’s life story and most impactful successes.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a huge motivator,” Lipton said. “She embodies what I feel a real civil rights lawyer is: Someone who uses her knowledge and power to actually make real change.”
Environmental earth and soil science sophomore Apollonia Arellano said that being a woman of color in a male-dominated field can be disheartening without feminist icons like “Notorious RBG.”
“Keeping successful women like Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the forefront of my mind reminds me that women are just as capable as any man when it comes to accomplishing our goals and dreams,” Arellano said.
Across majors, ages and political affiliations, members of the Cal Poly community say they have felt the effect of the death of the feminist icon.
“I am just praying for her and her family and hoping that everyone can use this time to reflect on the importance of service to their country without politicizing it,” industrial engineering sophomore and member of the pro-life Students for Life club Ben Haering said.
However, Haering said the petitions demanding Trump and the Senate to delay filling Justice Ginsburg’s open seat seem to politicize her death.
“Both sides are taking advantage of the situation which is unfortunate,” Haering said. “Those petition efforts are more partisan-based than of a desire for actual rule of law.”
While Ginsburg did combat gender discrimination personally and politically, Cal Poly Democrats Club Co-President and political science junior Rob Moore said that Ginsburg’s life work cannot be simplified as solely a concern for women’s issues.
“I think she gets often tokenized as this woman who fought for women, which is awesome and very true, but she’s also a woman who fought for everyone,” Moore said.
Moore said he thinks Ginsburg was someone who knew how much she meant to the world and thus treated her role with a “very justified amount of reverence.”
“I thought she might be immortal,” Moore said. “At a higher level, a part of me was like, ‘oh God, is this step two of the demise of our democracy?’”
For political science professor Michael Latner, Ginsburg’s work on key issues — from voting rights to gerrymandering — directly affected his professional field.
Latner also said he believes Ginsburg’s impact can be felt by both liberals and conservatives.
“I think she’s a hero to me, and to anyone,” Latner said. “Even those who have different political and ideological views, I think, recognize the contribution she’s made to justice and the U.S.”
Latner added that the single open seat on the Supreme Court could cause further politicizing of “the last institution in our federal government that has any integrity.”
Trump now has a third opportunity to appoint a Conservative justice, which could change the majority votes from 5-4 with a conservative lean, to 6-3 with a conservative lean. The new imbalance means it is more likely justices will rule based on political ideology rather than showing fair judicial restraint, according to Latner.
“If we don’t have people with the right experience and qualifications, the Court becomes nothing but a political weapon,” Latner said. “I think Ginsburg realized that.”
Never in U.S. history has a Supreme Court Justice been nominated and confirmed from July to November during an election year, political science professor Shelley Hurt said. However, this has occurred once when President Woodrow Wilson nominated Justice John Hessin Clarke to the Supreme Court on July 14, 1916 and was appointed by the Senate on July 24.
The U.S. constitutional order not only rests on checks and balances, but it also depends largely on the norms we set — norms that are now at risk of eroding, Hurt said.
“This is a fraught period,” Hurt said. “The passing of Ginsburg and what we’re seeing as an ensuing power play is for the history books.”
Latner said Republicans may also wait to appoint a new justice during the “lame duck” session — the period after the election, but before the next official term begins.
Although Haerig said that both Democrats and Republicans politicized Ginsburg’s death, he said that President Trump should fill the vacant seat.
“It is not the best circumstances, but I think it’s a constitutional duty to go through the process,” Haering said. “Personally, I think numerous people on both sides have said that it is the president’s duty to fill that seat.”
The Republican-dominated Senate would have to vote to confirm Trump’s new appointment, and despite the short timeframe, the party is willing to do so.
Lipton said it is hypocritical that they would support the appointment of a new justice before the presidential election despite the fact that in 2016, Republicans blocked President Barack Obama from appointing a new justice nine months before the upcoming election.
In the days before her death, Ginsburg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera, her hopes for the future of the Supreme Court.
“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” Ginsburg said.
Spera reported Ginsburg’s last words to BBC News on Sept. 21.
“A lot of Democrats are outraged by this idea of replacing her so quickly.” Lipton said. “[The new appointment would be] just completely taking over all the power on the Supreme Court bench.”
Others believe that Ginsburg’s dying wish should not be actualized into law.
“We have to respect and understand her wishes, but it’s not up to her how the process goes,” Haering said.
With the Supreme Court appointment as a new talking point for both Republican and Democrat election campaigns, Latner warns that the Supreme Court functioning as a political weapon may cause Americans to lose confidence in the judicial branch. As a result, the Court would lose its authority and legitimacy, Latner said.
Nutrition sophomore Kyoko Hall, a volunteer with Planned Parenthood Generation Action, had similar concerns.
“This is all very scary to me,” Hall said. “It makes me lose hope in America and where we are going.”
Many professors and students alike urge others to consider the gravity of the political climate in the U.S.
“Students should not think we are living through normal politics,” Hurt said. “There are bigger, powerful stakes afoot right now. History is on the move.”
Moore and other members of Cal Poly Democrats said they worry about their loved ones who feel at risk with the Supreme Court’s open seat, such as women and DACA recipients.
“These political decisions are not simply political decisions,” Moore said. “These are things that affect our loved ones.”
For women in the U.S. such as Hall, the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade — a Supreme Court decision that blocks excessive government restrictions on abortion — is becoming more of a reality.
“Later in her life, RBG was a big advocate for pro-choice,” Hall said. “I can’t imagine living in America and not having the right to have an abortion.”
In the months preceding the November elections, members of the Cal Poly community encouraged citizens to honor their civic duty, and get involved.
“The vote is something that not too long ago people died for,” Latner said. “We’re now in a position where the fate of our democracy may very well hang in the balance. Our democracy is dysfunctional without people fulfilling their civic obligation.”
Hurt said Ginsburg demonstrated how to work within the system to affect change and critique the status quo, all while preserving democracy.
“Democracy is something that we always have to cherish, that we always have to defend,” Hurt said. “All of us are counting on young people to appreciate and value democracy and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Although some have expressed fear and hopelessness in the American democracy, Ginsburg has empowered other students, such as Lipton, to seek change and fight for an inclusive future.
“Women’s rights activists aren’t going anywhere,” Lipton said. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg was so important to us, but she wasn’t the end-all-be-all for women’s rights, and there will be more of her.”
If given the chance to speak to Ginsburg, Lipton would give Ginsburg this message:
“Thank you. We will try to continue the work that you were doing and be the best activists that we can be, in your honor.”
Cal Poly College Republicans did not respond to requests for an interview.