Political battle over Supreme Court vacancy should have waited, Ginsburg admirers say

In 2018, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part in a fireside chat with Bruce M. Selya, of Providence, a 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals senior judge, at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I.
In 2018, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg took part in a fireside chat with Bruce M. Selya, of Providence, a 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals senior judge, at the Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, R.I.James Jones/Roger Williams University School of Law

PROVIDENCE — The political brawl over a vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat should have waited a week so that the public could be afforded the time to properly mourn the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a longtime friend and fellow federal judge said Monday.

“I think the whole thing is so unfortunate as to border on the disrespectful,” said Bruce M. Selya, a senior judge on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “The attention now should be on Ruth and her life and her accomplishments and not on speculation about these political maneuvers and who has the muscle.”

According to National Public Radio, Ginsburg’s dying wish was to not have her vacancy on the Supreme Court filled until after the election. NPR’s Nina Totenberg reported that Ginsburg told her granddaughter: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

On Monday, President Trump suggested without evidence that Democrats had concocted that quote.


But Selya, who was appointed to the 1st Circuit in 1986 by President Ronald Reagan, said he has no doubt that was her dying wish.

“That is perfectly consistent with everything she said to me and everything I knew about her,” he said. “She had such respect for the Supreme Court as an institution that I think she would have preferred that the choice be made in a deliberative manner, not in the hurly-burly of a presidential election campaign.”

Selya, who lives in Providence, went to Harvard Law School with Ginsburg and her husband, the late Martin Ginsburg.

They remained in touch over the years, and Selya – once dubbed the “sesquipedalian septuagenarian” by the Boston Globe – said she was a meticulous jurist who took great pride in her written opinions.

“On occasion, we would discuss for 15 minutes why either one of us had used a particular word in a particular sentence,” he said.


Ginsburg also was “tremendously courageous,” Selya said, recalling her husband’s illness and death and her own health battles.

“She refused to let any of that deter her from her work, which she knew to be important,” he said. "It would have been relatively easy for many people in her position to say, ‘I have had a wonderful career.’ " But she wanted to continue working for as long as she had “the stamina, the will, and the intellect,” he said.

Selya said that after Ginsburg was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, he visited her in Washington, D.C., planning to invite her to speak at Providence’s Temple Bethel-El at the request of his friend, Rabbi Leslie Gutterman.

But as they talked, Selya asked what the main difference was between serving on a federal appeals court and the Supreme Court, and she opened a draw, revealing piles of envelopes with invitations from synagogues around the country. He decided against adding to the pile.

In 2018, Ginsburg did visit Rhode Island, speaking both at Temple Beth-El and the Roger Williams University School of Law.

Rabbi Gutterman recalled that people packed the temple to see Ginsburg and a roar went up when she walked down the long center aisle, holding his hand. He remembered seeing a little girl holding a copy of Ginsburg’s book, “I Dissent,” and he remembered Governor Gina M. Raimondo asking if she could take a photo with the justice in his office.


Gutterman said that at one point he asked Ginsburg about the secret to her long, close marriage: She told him that early in their relationship, her mother-in-law took her into a bedroom and gave her a pair of ear plugs. She joked that sometimes she used the ear plugs with her colleagues on the court.

Gutterman said he was saddened that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, moved so quickly to begin talking about a vote on a Trump nominee to succeed Ginsburg.

“In our tradition, it’s customary to have people sit quietly by a person who has passed, saying psalms,” he said. “There’s something seemly about being able to give respect to a person without talking about political consequences and implications.”

In 2018, during a “fireside chat” with Ginsburg at RWU Law, Selya noted that both of them had been confirmed as judges with overwhelming bipartisan votes, but in recent years, Supreme Court nominees have been the subject of bitter partisan battles.

“Some day, I hope we will get back to the way it was,” Ginsburg said. "I think it would take great leaders on both sides of the aisle to say, ‘Let’s stop this nonsense and start working for our country the way we should.’ "

Ginsburg said she does not want the public to get the impression the federal courts are “just another political branch of government.” She said, “We have a great federal judiciary. I hope we can keep it.”


On Monday, Selya said that Ginsburg provided “an object lesson for people in public life” in her friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who was as conservative as she was liberal.

“She didn’t think of Nino as an opponent, and Nino didn’t think of her as an opponent,” Selya said. “They thought of each other as colleagues that had a different view about a certain issue, but they respected the other person’s view.”

In other words, they did not let their differences get in the way of genuine friendship, he said. “And that is, to some extent, what is missing from what you see from afar in Washington today.”

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.