Honored at This Year’s Benjamin Cooper Lecture, “The Notorious R.B.G.” Inspired GDS

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a pioneering advocate, cultural icon and former GDS parent, passed away on Sept. 18, 2020. Her legacy resonates in the hearts of many GDS students and faculty. On Wednesday, Nov. 18, her life’s work and memory was honored in GDS’ 23rd annual Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture, which was led by Head of School Russell Shaw and presented virtually to an audience of over 300 GDS parents, students and alumni. 

The Benjamin Cooper Memorial Lecture was established in memory of Benjamin Cooper by his close friends after Cooper was killed in a tragic accident on Aug. 12, 1997. According to the GDS website and lecture introduction, the Cooper-Areen family endowed the Lecture Fund, which enables GDS to host a renowned guest lecturer each year “to stimulate the kind of dialogue in which Cooper loved to participate.” In past years, speakers have talked at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and included Justice Sonia Sotomayor and acclaimed poet, author, educator and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou.  

This year, Justice Ginsburg was supposed to speak at the lecture, but after her death, the lecture was dedicated to her memory. She fiercely advocated for women’s rights and served as an associate justice on the Supreme Court starting in 1993. For much of her working life, she lived in Washington, D.C. 

Her son, Jim Ginsburg ’83, attended GDS. He said last week during Shaw’s closing remarks that “GDS saved him” after transferring from a different high school, which wasn’t a good fit, to GDS in tenth grade. At the end of the lecture, Jim Ginsburg also spoke about his appreciation for the stories told at the lecture about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that especially captured her collegiality and respect for others. 

The speakers at the lecture were U.S. District Judge and GDS parent Ketanji Jackson, Circuit Judge and former GDS parent Nina Pillard, Congressman and GDS parent Jamie Raskin ’79 and National Public Radio’s award-winning legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. They all mentioned Ginsburg’s enormous contributions and presence as a litigator and Supreme Court justice. 

Jackson said, “To live her legacy is to ask: How can I help? She was a person who identified problems and sought solutions.” 

Pillard brought up the late justice’s “pathbreaker role” and her power as a leader, which was based “on being prepared, putting one foot in front of the other and inspiring an ability to find your voice.” 

Totenberg described Ginsburg’s success as a lawyer and the sheer number of gender-discriminatory laws that she helped overturn. “She was an elegant writer,” Totenberg said. “The opinions she wrote were also so persuasive.”  

History teacher and former practicing lawyer Carlos Angulo agreed. “Her legacy is so powerful because it occurred not only as a judge but as an advocate,” he said. “It reminds me of Thurgood Marshall, who argued Brown v. Board of Education and who was active as a lawyer and advocate before he was a judge. That dual legacy is sort of cool,” he added.

History teacher Marjorie Brimley also discussed Ginsburg’s perseverance and success in making a sea of change in American law. When reflecting on Ginsburg’s legacy, Brimley said, “She faced so many obstacles that I can’t even imagine and she got through it. There is a level of inspiration that I really draw from that.”

Ginsburg dismantled hundreds of federal laws, such as an Idaho law favoring men over women in estate battles. She also vindicated the will of Congress as a result of the legal cases she argued and won. Senior Nicolas Moiseyev concluded, “It would be hard to get a lot of stuff done without her. She was always a leading force.”

In addition to Ginsburg’s influence as a litigator and Supreme Court Justice, Totenberg also described Ginsburg’s life advice for her good friend Totenberg to take care of herself and stay strong even when her husband was ill. Junior Eve Kolker, who attended the virtual lecture, noted that “that story was very telling that she was a wise woman, not just accomplished as a Justice.”

Not only did Ginsburg channel her legal talents as a writer and advocate for justice into a successful career, but her open-minded personality led to engagement with many people whose views were vastly different from hers. Junior Eleanor Gaugh brought up Justice Ginsburg’s close friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in 2016 and whose legal philosophy completely differed from Ginsburg’s. “That made them both better lawyers and better people.” Gaugh said, “We can work on finding that humanity in people rather than focusing on the divide.”

Indeed, the country’s political divide became apparent immediately after Ginsburg’s death. On Oct. 26, her seat on the high court was filled by Justice Amy Coney Barret, a conservative favorite appointed by President Donald Trump. Many GDS students and faculty, including Angulo, Moiseyev, Kolker and Gaugh, expressed frustration with the confirmation process following Ginsburg’s death. “I don’t think it respected her legacy and her passing,” Gaugh said. 

Angulo noted that seven and a half months prior to the 2016 presidential election, the Republicans (holding a majority in the Senate) refused to hold a hearing to vote on President Barack Obama’s supreme court nomination, Merrick Garland. Yet in 2020, Senate Republicans did not hesitate to fill Ginsburg’s seat with Barrett by confirming her eight days before the presidential election. “It was so intellectually dishonest and hypocritical compared to what the Republicans had done with Merrick Garland,” Angulo said. 

Moreover, Kolker also pointed out the pushback against Obama when he tried to fill Scalia’s seat in 2016 as well as Ginsburg’s own desire to wait until after the election for her seat to be filled. “It was very much a lack of respect above everything that got people upset, especially when Ginsburg said it was her dying wish to not let her seat be filled until after the presidential election,” Kolker said. “It’s very frustrating to watch that happen.” 

The political balance of the Supreme Court—which now has a six to three conservative majority—also stings the hearts of many GDS students and faculty. “It’s going to be hard to pass real progressive, controversial legislation,” Moiseyev commented. “The Supreme Court is full of young Republican[-appointed] justices who are just going to serve there for the next 50 plus years. That really scares me,”  

GDS students, including Kolker, mentioned how much change Ginsburg enacted through her work. “The amount of ways she transformed women’s rights in this country had a very lasting impact,” Kolker said. “It says a lot about how much can be done by one person.”

Ginsburg’s life and her legacy have led to reflection about how individuals can make a lasting impact. Brimley said, “Continuing to work on the issues that you feel passionately about is the best way to honor the legacy of all of the people that have done similar things to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”