13. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer

Jewish justices for all

From left to right: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elana Kagan and Stephen Breyer (photo credit: REUTERS)
From left to right: Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Elana Kagan and Stephen Breyer
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg – RBG comes to Israel
Ironically, what makes US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so influential this year is not her decisions on the court, but her life story – which surprisingly became a hit documentary.
Known for writing fiery dissents, in June she dissented in a major case where the majority of the court said that a baker did not need to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. She also dissented in key decisions in which the court empowered states to purge certain voters from the poll lists and where the court limited the power of unions.
But the documentary, her tour presenting it in Israel and her life’s story far out-shined those decisions. She came to Israel to receive a Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award at the Rabin Center on July 4, where she declared that she was proud of being a Jew, adding, “The demand for justice, for peace and for enlightenment runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
July’s public screening in Jerusalem of the biographical documentary about her explained how, as an ACLU lawyer before she became a Supreme Court justice, she won five out of six major Supreme Court decisions, altering the entire playing field of the women’s rights debate.
If the court expected her as a lawyer to stick to small-change factual issues in disputes, she made each case about whether the country viewed women as equal from a bird’s eye view.
Once she ascended to the court, she was already a national hero for women’s equality and liberalism, which gave her disproportional influence on the court at times.
The film recalled that Ginsburg was confirmed to the court by an astounding bipartisan vote of 96-3, in contrast to the routinely narrow party-line votes that now seem to characterize every confirmation of a new justice.
The documentary recounted how US Chief Justice William Rehnquist swore her into office in 1993, after having put down her arguments as a lawyer in the 1970s with wise cracks asking her if she would be satisfied if they put the face of famous women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony on an item of American currency along with former presidents.
The film shows her doing a victory lap at Virginia Military Institute in 2017 as an honored speaker at graduation ceremonies, with decades of female alumni looking on in pride. This, 20 years after being VMI’s enemy when she ordered the school to open its doors to women, screaming and kicking.
Interviewed on stage in Jerusalem after the movie’s screening, RBG proclaimed that although the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the 14th Amendment regarding equal protection of the law resulted in women achieving equality on most issues, the US should still pass the Equal Rights Amendment because “it belongs in the constitution.”
Elena Kagan – Fighting ‘black-robed rulers’
In her almost eight years on the US Supreme Court, Justice Elena Kagan has broken into the news several times, but where she views social justice being denied in the court, she has started to confront the majority in a much more no-holds-barred manner.
In a case in which the majority weakened unions by striking down a 40-year precedent preserving union fees as a requirement for workers, she accused her fellow justices of acting like “black-robed rulers” who were “weaponizing the first amendment.”
She explained that the first amendment was meant to protect freedom of expression of the weak, not to be used by the powerful to crush the weak’s ability to organize to defend their rights.
In past years, she received media attention for introducing a new frozen yogurt machine after she had previously complained about the cafeteria in public speeches. Kagan made headlines again, such as “it all starts in the kitchen,” when she dumped the position on the newest court rookie, Neil Gorsuch.
But Kagan’s biggest claim to fame as a Jewish judge was a rousing retelling of one of the first interactions between George Washington and the Jews of the US.
She was explaining the significance of the government not showing preference to a specific religion in a 5-4 dissent against a decision by the court regarding separation between “church and state,” which allowed a primarily Christian town to hold prayers at the start of its meetings.
Quoting Moses Seixas of Newport, Rhode Island, who thanked Washington in 1790 with “a deep sense of gratitude” for the new American government, Kagan related Seixas’ statement that the US has “a Government, which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming every one, of whatever Nation, tongue, or language, equal parts of the great governmental Machine.”
Also, in the past, her “Spiderman” decision got media coverage when she opted for Spiderman terminology to enliven one of her rulings.
Stephen Breyer – Walking the middle line
Justice Stephen Breyer, who turned 80 last month, has served on the US Supreme Court since 1994, having clerked for the legendary justice Arthur Goldberg in 1964.
Breyer has a middle-of-the-road record on most issues, including issues related to Israel and the Jewish people.
With regard to general cases in 2018, he mostly voted with the liberal minority in cases where the conservative majority endorsed the Trump administration’s tweaked Muslims travel ban; empowered states to purge certain voters from the poll lists; and limited the powers of unions.
On the other hand, he departed from the liberal wing and joined the majority on a key decision in which the court said that a baker did not need to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Regarding Jewish issues, he was in the 6-3 majority that in 2015 during the Obama years rejected registering US passports with Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – but he was part of the 6-2 majority endorsing a multi-billion dollar judgment against Iran in 2016 in favor of terror victims, including Americans attacked while in Israel.
The full list of plaintiffs in that case included hundreds of Americans killed or injured in the 1983 bombing of a US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut and the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia, as well as Jewish victims of a 1997 double-suicide bombing on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, and other attacks.
Breyer has talked about his Jewish identity in public many times over the years, usually emphasizing a commitment to being socially Jewish and appears to identify as more traditional than other Jewish justices.
He also helped move the court in the 1990s toward dropping the hearing of cases on Yom Kippur.