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Ruth Bader Ginsburg lauded in Philly as a legal and feminist icon ‘whose voice soared above the rest’

From a West Philadelphia park to the halls of justice, admirers describe the late justice as a jurist who played a staggering role in expanding the rights for the nation’s women and minorities.

People gather on the north side of Phila City Hall for a vigil honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 19, 2020.
People gather on the north side of Phila City Hall for a vigil honoring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Sept. 19, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

As he presented Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the National Constitution Center’s prestigious Liberty Medal this week, center president Jeffrey Rosen hailed her as a giant of constitutional law, the court’s most forceful advocate for gender and racial equality, and one of the most influential justices in history.

“In the world of the opera,” he said, in a nod to her beloved musical genre, “a diva is a woman of outstanding talent, who breathes life into a centuries-old work, and whose voice soars above the rest, strong and clear. Someone like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

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Ginsburg would die within hours, after a decade-long fight with cancer. And on Saturday, thousands flocked to view that video tribute online — one that became an unexpected eulogy, delivered from a city that birthed the ideal of equal treatment under the law that she spent her career defending.

Tributes poured in from across Philadelphia, where admirers held an informal vigil Saturday night outside City Hall and women at the Fishtown Recreation Center donned “Notorious RBG” T-shirts — a nod to her late-in-life turn as pop icon. Fellow judges and legal scholars described her as a jurist who, despite her diminutive stature, played a staggering role in expanding the rights for the nation’s women and minorities.

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And at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Center City, which hosted a tribute exhibition to Ginsburg’s life and legacy last year, the online gift shop was inundated with orders for face masks, action figures, coffee mugs, and other tchotchkes bearing her image, museum staff said.

At Clark Park in West Philadelphia, activists and others cited Ginsburg’s lifelong commitment to liberal ideals as they marched Saturday in opposition to a planned rally by the alt-right group the Proud Boys.

She radiated intelligence and purpose, said Jhett Bond, a 46-year-old writer. “She left us with her legacy. To fight, and to fight in a way that inspires others to follow.”

Ginsburg’s popularity, here and across the country, stemmed as much from the work of her early career, as a professor at Rutgers University and lawyer who fought and won pivotal cases on women’s rights, as it did from her 27-year tenure on the bench. There, she emerged in recent years as the undisputed leader of the court’s liberal wing, known for her sharp writing and powerful dissents on cases involving abortion, voting rights, and pay discrimination against women.

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While hearing a Pennsylvania case earlier this year over whether employers could claim religious exemptions to deny providing birth-control coverage to their workers, she quickly cut to the core as questioning from the other justices became mired in debates over arcane points of administrative law.

“You have just tossed entirely to the wind what Congress thought was essential: that women be provided with these services with no hassle, no cost to them,” she said, calling into the hearing from a hospital bed in Maryland where she was recovering from a gallstone infection at the time.

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Her dissent in that case would be her last.

“She just got it and went right at it,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose office argued the case. “She was just remarkable that day and every day.”

But it was her powerful dissent in the 2017 voting-rights case Shelby County v. Holder — in which Ginsburg compared the majority’s decision to strike down parts of the Voting Rights Amendment to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet” — that inspired Shana Knizhnik to launch her Tumblr blog titled The Notorious R.B.G. while in law school at New York University.

“It started out as kind of a joke,” the Philadelphia native and former law clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit told CNN on Saturday, the anniversary of Knizhnik’s wedding, at which Ginsburg officiated. “It was sort of a play in contrasts between this amazing rapper who died early in life and this diminutive octogenarian Supreme Court justice. But I think that her notoriety, her incredible superhero status in American culture was something that people were yearning for — especially young people and young women in particular.”

The moniker quickly took off, spawning T-shirts, books, feature films, and museum exhibitions, and engendering a cult following.

These days, said Drexel law professor Lisa Tucker, who teaches a class on the Supreme Court, there is no question which justice is the favorite of her students.

“She’s without a doubt No. 1,” she said. “But it’s not only my students. I have daughters and stepdaughters ranging in age from 12 to 21 and I see it in their peers. I have friends whose daughters dress up as her for Halloween.”

Ginsburg fostered that devotion during many visits to Philadelphia, which reliably drew standing ovations and whooping cheers from sold-out crowds. In December, she was inducted into the Only in America Hall of Fame at the National Museum of American Jewish History.

“You’d be surprised how many friends called me with daughters and granddaughters desperately hoping to get tickets,” said Marjorie “Midge” Rendell, a judge on the Philadelphia-based Third Circuit. “We judges are pretty dull people, and for her to have captured the imagination and become that rock star, she benefited all of us.”

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While accepting the honor, Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court, read the famous words of Emma Lazarus, a Jewish writer whose work she credited with inspiring her. A line from Lazarus' poem “The New Colossus” — “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free” — is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“That was one of the most moving experiences of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Josh Perelman, the museum’s chief curator. “Not just because it’s a beautiful poem ... but it was amplified by who Justice Ginsburg is and how she created a life of dedication to the ideals of this nation and her stature as a beacon for justice and hope.”

For Rosen, the Constitution Center president, it was that dedication that made Ginsburg such an influential figure in his life.

The two met by chance on an elevator when she was an appellate judge on the D.C. Circuit and he a young law clerk. Not knowing what to say, he struck up a conversation about opera — a hesitant attempt at small talk that blossomed into a decades-long friendship.

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He would bring her to the Constitution Center in 2013 for a revealing conversation about the inner workings of the court and ultimately edited a collection of their talks into his book Conversations With RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty and Law.

Rosen said Saturday he was honored to have been able to present her with the Liberty Medal in the waning hours of her life. Even though the coronavirus and the justice’s ailing health prevented a ceremony in person, Ginsburg sent a letter calling it a “huge honor.”

“To have your hero be your role model,” Rosen said Saturday, his voice trailing off. “She just inspired me every day and will continue to for the rest of my life. Whenever I feel that I’m distracted or not as focused as I should be, I think, ‘What would RBG do?’ And then I get back to work.”

Staff writers Samantha Melamed, Allison Steele, and Alfred Lubrano contributed to this article.