Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s sudden death a year ago marked a pivotal moment for the nation’s highest court. A trailblazer for women in the spheres of politics and law, she was mourned by many after succumbing to complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer last September at age 87.
Among being remembered as both a cultural and feminist icon, Ginsburg became a leader of the court’s liberal wing during the 27 years she served on the bench. Her death left open a vacancy on the court that was among the quickest filled in recent history, with then-President Donald Trump opting to replace her with the conservative Amy Coney Barrett — the third justice he appointed during his tenure.
Ginsburg’s absence is already being felt. Here are some of the ways that Ginsburg’s death has shaped the court and conversations surrounding it a year later.
A shift toward the court becoming dominated by conservative views on the law
For decades, the Supreme Court was relatively balanced, with a quartet of liberal justices often able to secure a swing vote from a member of the conservative wing in their favor. That meant despite a series of Republican presidents working to cement a reliable majority on the court, rulings perceived largely as liberal victories — chief among them the establishment of a right to same-sex marriage, the preservation of abortion rights, and the continuation of the Affordable Care Act — still occurred. But the death of Ginsburg has placed this moderation in jeopardy.
Ginsburg was nominated by then-President Bill Clinton to the bench and took her seat in 1993. But the era of a Supreme Court ruled by conservative views was put in motion long before that, beginning most notably with former president Richard Nixon, who appointed four justices. After Nixon, five more Republican presidents followed — Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump — who appointed nearly a dozen justices combined. Only two Democratic presidents between Nixon and Trump — Clinton and Barack Obama — appointed justices to the court, and they appointed two each. (No Supreme Court vacancy occurred during Jimmy Carter’s term.)
Under Trump, the rightward shift of the court was accelerated. It was only about a day after Ginsburg died that Trump and McConnell were contemplating who would succeed her just weeks before the presidential election. At this point in his term, Trump had already appointed two conservative justices to the Supreme Court — Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. His nomination of federal appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the high court ultimately tipped the scale from a slim 5-4 conservative majority to the solid and long-elusive 6-3 conservative majority that Republicans had been chasing after for years.
With Ginsburg gone, the conservative majority begins to show its cards on key issues
In Ginsburg’s absence, everything from the court’s docket to the influence of Chief Justice John Roberts — often a moderating voice on critical issues — was called into question. With three Trump-appointed justices on the court, along with the power of Roberts on decisions having waned, the expectation going into the term that concluded in July was that the votes of the three liberal justices — Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Justice Stephen Breyer — would regularly be overruled by their conservative colleagues. But despite boasting a strong conservative majority, the Supreme Court ended up voting unanimously nearly half the time, and only lined up “along strict ideological lines in seven of 56 cases,” Bloomberg Law reported.
It was at the very end of the term that the court most noticeably asserted its conservative leaning, with a 6-3 ruling that gives states an expanded scope of power to impose restrictions on voting rights. In its vote on the case, the court reinstated two Arizona state laws that had previously been struck down by a federal appeals court in San Francisco — one that bars ballots cast in the wrong precinct from being counted, and another that bans the collection of absentee ballots by anyone other than a caregiver or relative. The ruling arrived as Republican-led state legislatures work to pass laws making it more difficult to access polls — which would have an especially adverse effect on people of color.
Then earlier this September, the court declined to block a highly restrictive Texas abortion law in a 5-4 ruling — triggering an outcry from proponents of reproductive rights nationwide and prompting some to claim that Roberts had lost control of the court.
As the Supreme Court heads into its next term this October, the loss of Ginsburg is likely to be acutely felt, particularly on the matters of gun laws and abortion rights. On the court’s docket is a case being brought forward by the state of Mississippi, which is attempting to get the landmark Roe v. Wade decision — guaranteeing a person’s right to an abortion — overturned. The court will hear arguments on Dec. 1 over the heated issue. Both causes — voting rights and abortion — were ones that Ginsburg was in strong favor of defending. It was her impassioned dissent about the court’s ruling to eliminate voting rights protections in 2013 that spurred a New York University Law student to begin a blog titled “Notorious RBG.”
Increased public perception that the court has become politicized — even partisan
In recent weeks, three different justices — Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Justice Stephen Breyer, and Justice Clarence Thomas — have spoken publicly about the Supreme Court and whether it is a political entity. All three issued strong denials against such a notion. But their dismissals arrive at a bad time in the eyes of the public, with new polling revealing that about half of registered voters disapprove of how the court has handled its job — an all-time low, according to Quinnipiac University, which first began posing the question in 2004. The survey was conducted following the court’s ruling on the Texas abortion law, the most restrictive in the country.
Barrett in particular stirred a backlash earlier this month when she delivered a lecture at an event with McConnell, which was held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the University of Louisville McConnell Center. She reportedly insisted that the court is defined by “judicial philosophies” as opposed to political views and that the court “is not comprised of a bunch of partisan hacks.” Her appearance alongside McConnell, the Republican senator who played a key role in expediting her confirmation, drew condemnation.
Despite adamant statements from the justices, however, many ranging from members of the media to academics and from lawmakers to the general public, appear to have only been convinced otherwise. In an op-ed for NBC News, Ryan C. Williams, an assistant professor of law at Boston College Law School, outlined some of the methods he thought justices could employ to “ameliorate these perceptions,” including turning down invitations from political figures and declining to hear controversial cases.
Ramped-up discussions over Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s retirement
While Ginsburg was on the Supreme Court, the liberal jurist faced calls from those including academics and lawyers to step down while Obama was still in office and Democrats maintained control over the Senate. At the time, liberals hoped that by retiring, she would ensure that the sitting president could replace her with a successor who shared her “views and values.”
As Obama’s two terms came and went without a retirement announcement, progressives aired the concern that should Democrats fall out of power, the court’s liberal minority would risk shrinking even further when the time came for another justice to be appointed to the nation’s highest court. When Ginsburg died, liberals watched as those fears came to life. Now, wary of a similar outcome, those groups — and even certain politicians, such as Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar — are asking the same of Breyer, much to his chagrin. At age 83, Breyer is the oldest justice on the court, followed by Thomas who is 10 years his junior.
But even as Breyer faces pressure to step down, and progressives renew calls to expand the Supreme Court, he has remained relatively mum in recent months concerning when he may retire. Breyer has previously counted his health and possibly whether there was still a Democrat-led Senate — which would allow President Biden to choose his successor — as factors he would potentially take into consideration.
“When I’m ready to announce something, I will,” Breyer said during a Washington Post Live interview earlier this month. “I’m the one ultimately responsible to myself, and so when I retire is when I made the decision. I have to be convinced that in my own mind, I am doing what I think is the right thing to do, both for the court and for myself. I guess like things involving somewhat personal matters, no one will ever know, but I’ll know.”