On Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020, the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law hosted a candlelight vigil in honor of the life and legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Sept. 19 vigil transcript
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
Elizabeth Kronk Warner: Good evening and welcome to today’s vigil, as we memorialize Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I’d like to begin our vigil with a minute of silence as we remember this tremendous woman.
Thank you, and welcome. I want to welcome both those of you who are able to be with us here in person today and those of us who are joining us virtually, thank you for coming together as a community. My name is Elizabeth Kronk Warner. I have the privilege of being the dean at S.J. Quinney College of Law. I’d like to begin by acknowledging, in my personal capacity, that today we’re on indigenous lands that were traditionally used as gathering places, so it seems particularly relevant that we would be gathering here today to celebrate the life of this amazing woman. My pronouns are she and hers.
I’m just going to chat for a couple of minutes because we have other speakers here today who are going to memorialize and speak to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s tremendous contributions to not just the law, but also to our community. And we are here to remember and mourn this amazing member of our community, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
There are two thoughts that I’ve had today that I wanted to share before I turn my time over. The first is my colleague, associate dean Amelia Smith Reinhardt said something earlier today on Facebook that really struck me. She spoke about how impactful Ruth Bader Ginsburg was, because at every point in her career as she climbed the ladder, and she did climb the ladder, both by being a successful Supreme Court advocate, winning many of her arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and then of course becoming a supreme court justice herself, when many thought that she could not do it. As she climbed that ladder, she did so with people on her back. She took others with her, she took us with her. And I thought that the way that Dean Rinehart phrased that really was impactful, this idea of one person bringing her entire nation and her community with her and making it a better space was truly impactful.
I also really appreciated all of the wonderful things that have been said about her in the past 24 hours. And one quote really struck with me that I wanted to share with you, she said, “If you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something to make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is, living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”
And so tonight I’ve been asked a lot about what I think her legacy is, and that’s truly, at the end of the day, what I think her legacy is and what I encourage all of us to try to do as we remember her and try to support her moving forward, is that she moved us forward and she made her community, her nation, a better place. We’re so incredibly thankful for her service, not just to the U.S. supreme court, but also to our nation.
And so with that, I want to turn the time over to my wonderful colleagues from the Transform College who are going to speak a little bit about the influence and impact of Justice Bader Ginsburg as well. Please, join us.
Kathryn Bond Stockton: Good evening everyone. I’ve been meditating on a phrase that I realized speaks to me deeply as a lifelong queer and gender-queer person. As I meditated on this phrase, which comes from the poet, Don Revell, spoken about the transgender poetry of poet Eli Shipley, I realized that this phrase that I have so loved, that I obsessed over, that I thought about, to my mind rather perfectly summarizes Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The phrase is this, it’s simple, you can memorize it, you can recite it on your pillow tonight. The phrase goes this way, “Outrage, imperfect calm of mind.” I just can’t think of a better phrase for this human being that has touched us to our core.
I believe that Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived in a perpetual state of outrage, joyfully. I know how oxymoronic that sounds, I am an English professor after all. But I think that sense of outrage fueled her, and I do believe that she lived it in the perfect calm of mind. I think that maybe what we need right now. In the midst of protest, which we desperately need, in the midst of anger being expressed in a variety of ways, which we so desperately need, we also need side by side with that perfect calm of mind. We need to strategize. We need to collectivize. We need to empathize in ways we never thought possible before.
Just yesterday I sent a memo throughout the University of Utah expressing our outrage over the fact that the federal government intends to stop funding agencies that teach critical race theory or white privilege. The president of the United States has said that critical race theory is a sickness that must not continue. We, in the school for cultural and social transformation, feel that to our core.
You hopefully know that critical race theory actually has its roots in critical legal studies, it’s what connects us so deeply to the college of law. We do believe that we must study our legal institutions. And we know that our legal institutions, as I think Ginsburg also knew, are not always characterized by rationality or impartiality, there are also ideological institutions that we must study, that we must fight with, we must live with, and we must seek the change. And transformation is in many ways in our new DNA, at the School for Cultural and Social Transformation.
I invite you to think about what it will mean for us to collectively, seriously, take on anti-blackness in this country. And if you wonder why in celebrating this great woman who did the work on sex gender, we would be talking about race, I think you know that all sex gender is racialized. To say racialized gender is to say gender. It’s a very interesting question whether we’ve ever had two sexes in the history of the United States, or whether going back to our founding, we have always had what seemed to be several sexes in motion, black men, black women, white men, white women, native men, native women, and so many more.
I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg has challenged us deeply to think about the collectivity that will carry us into this next stage. I hope you feel outrage. I hope you join us in outrage. I have never felt that anger needs to be the face of our anger. Sometimes it does, I think we are seeing that now very powerfully. But the type of calm of mind that we try to explore in our academic institutions serve us very well in this moment. I say, rest in peace, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. R.I.P., RBG. And now I hand you over to the chair of gender studies, professor Wanda Pillow.
Wanda Pillow: Thank you, Kathryn, and thank you law school and dean for organizing a chance for us to come together tonight and both honor and remember. And as I’ve been sitting with thoughts and feelings today, like most of us, I want to speak to some of what that Ginsburg performed in terms of the flare, the style, and the wit that Ginsburg brought to her work and to her passions. From the lace collars to the descent necklaces, the super diva sweatshirts, sharing a workout exercise routine and video. That, one, is seriously hard, if you haven’t tried it, you should. And two, if you’re like me, I ended up just repeatedly watching it for the sheer joy of just watching it. And I think especially since 2016, Justice Ginsburg became a source of clarity, of hope, of inspiration and of belief.
And it’s also been interesting in the 2010s to watch Justice Ginsburg become a renewed role model. A role model of speaking up, speaking out, and doing the work. And that’s where I think we started to see that notorious RBG, right? Come into play. Recirculating the name of rapper Biggie Smalls, known as notorious BIG. And I give that bit of history because I’m encouraging us tonight to also remember Biggie Smalls and Notorious BIG because in 1972 Ginsburg repeated abolitionist, Sarah Grimké, century-old requests to “Take their feet off of our necks.” And made that statement in front of the supreme court, at that time.
And this is also the quote that began the 2018 RBG documentary. And I think that’s not without coincidence, and it is a lesson for us to learn, as Dean Stockton was laying out our history of critical legal studies, racialized gender, the work that Justice Ginsburg has been doing, brought us to think about intersectionalities of equal access and the kinds of what that looks like, and what it means, and our work that we need to continue on that today.
I also want to turn to, and have been thinking about today, Justice Ginsburg’s repeated use of dissent. And I think this is where the notorious is surely earned, is in this dissent as both a witness to an erosion of justice, but also dissent as a way to provide a logical, passionate counter-voice. And I want to ask us all here tonight to begin to embrace this practice of descent, which I think of as a form of critically engaged and a loving practice. As Justice Ginsburg noted about descents speak for a future age, that’s the dissenter’s hope, that they are writing not for today, but for the future. We are in historic political and social cultural times occurring during a global pandemic, Justice Ginsburg was well aware of this, stating a few days before she passed, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”
I think one of the most impactful ways we can honor Justice Ginsburg is to practice her persistent model of engagement and be willing, as necessary, to practice descent. May her memory be a revolution, as a call echoing across social media today. In the face of hate, systemic racism, violence, degradation of persons and land, and erosions of civil rights, let us all be notorious in our daily lives and our daily roles. And nothing is more notorious than participating in coalitional descent to ensure rights and access. To enact descent for the kind of communities that we want and need, now and for the future. Let us find strength in this gathering, in this parking lot, and online and at home, to collectively echo, I descent, I descent, I descent. Thank you. And now we’re going to turn to our online speakers.
Matthew Tokson: Hello, my apologies for the delay. My remarks will be short. I don’t think that I have the words equal to this moment, and I struggled to think of what to say. I knew Justice Ginsburg, I worked for her as a clerk in the 2011-12 term. And I want to talk about Justice Ginsburg as a person, as a judge and as a pioneer as well.
When people ask to describe Justice Ginsburg, I say first and foremost, she’s a grandmother. She reminds me of my own grandmother in many ways. And she was indeed a grandmother with a wonderful family, whom I’ve met. She was a normal person in that way, she also happened to be a brilliant legal mind and a revolutionary attorney in her time. But she very much reminded me of my own grandmother, someone who was concerned about the wellbeing of her family, and someone who cared deeply about her clerks and their lives. She was also a loving wife, her marriage … If you’ve seen any of the movies about Justice Ginsburg that have come out over the past few years, you know that her marriage was an example to us all in an era where marriage wasn’t always as equal and supportive as it might be.
She and her husband were married for, I believe, 56 years before his passing. And he supported her, she supported him as well throughout that entire time, as they both rose to prominence and she ultimately to the highest court in the land. And Marty was her support that entire time, and I think it was a model for all of us there. Again, their marriage was a model for any marriage that we might have.
I was rereading his note to her on his death bed, essentially, and it’s a short note because he was very sick, but it very much comes through that this was a love that lasted for over 50 years, that they depended deeply on each other, I know. I never met Marty, but I know that she was devastated by his loss, so many people are devastated by hers today.
If you know anything about Justice Ginsburg she was an opera lover, as someone who loved music and the arts. I saw a photograph of her today with her opera gloves on and it was very moving to me because that was who she was. That was her one sort of … Well, she was very much into fashion, but that was her sort of favorite fashion accessory. And she was a patron of the arts. Every year she’d take her clerks to see an opera at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
And we went there and we had the wonderful seating and everything, we got to go backstage and meet some of the singers and the artists, and they all knew Justice Ginsburg. And they would say, “Hello, Justice Ginsburg.” And chat with her, it was clear that she was there all the time, and was sort of a major supporter there. And she was so passionate about the arts and she loved to share it with us, and that’s a very fond memory.
I could go on and on about the justice as a person, but those are sort of the broad public strokes of who Justice Ginsburg was. As a judge and a justice, she was remarkable. She taught me so much, particularly about legal writing, she made me a better lawyer in so many ways. She had very high standards and she was, I think, in her early days, was thought to be tough on her clerks. By the time I got there that was no longer the case, I think she was very warm to us from the start. I suspect that it was always very much out of love. She certainly, again, was very supportive to us.
I remember working on something with her, and she would sit us down, she sat me down individually and went over every line everything and said, “This should be like this, this should be like that.” And through that process, that’s just the best way to learn. It was like getting an individual session with one of the most brilliant legal writers of our time. And I deeply appreciated that she would spend the time to do something like that.
She was a brilliant, legal mind. She ended up transferring law schools from Harvard to Columbia, to follow Marty and support him. And she was top of her class wherever she went. She was one of the few female students at both places, and it was a difficult environment for her and she excelled to just an unbelievable degree in both places. She was a brilliant legal mind, even among supreme court justices, she was particularly brilliant. What more can you say then that?
Finally, the reason that she rose as high as she did, the reason why the whole nation is mourning her passing, is that she was a pioneer. A pioneer of women’s rights, most particularly, but as others have said, also a pioneer in racial equality and a dissenter in cases where that value hasn’t always been honored over the course of her career.
Maybe my favorite or at least maybe the most touching story that I can think of in my courtship with Justice Ginsburg was, towards the end when work was a little lighter we ended up watching a documentary that was on HBO at the time about Loving vs. Virginia case, a case involving interracial marriage. It was a very touchy documentary, and we were watching it with Justice Ginsburg who had also worked at the ACLU, which is where she did so much of her work in basically establishing equal rights for women. And watching this documentary and she’d say, “Oh, I worked with this person. I worked there in that office.” And just sort of seeing how she had been there, at the epicenter of a dramatic legal and societal change, right? It’s almost beyond comprehension that the fairly recent past, men and women didn’t have equal rights under the equal protection clause. Interracial marriage was outlawed in several states.
Through the work of people like justice Ginsburg, those things have changed. And it’s because of that, that we’re here. And I hope that we can carry that forward, carry her amazing work forward into the future. I’ll miss her terribly. And I thank you very much for the opportunity to say goodbye to her with you all tonight. Thank you.
RonNell Andersen Jones: Hi everybody. And thanks to Dean Kronk Warner for the chance to say a few words at this hard time, as we reflect on the life and legacy of this powerful woman who is a hero of mine. I send my condolences and deepest sympathies to her family and close friends, and the tight-knit group of law clerks, and especially to my colleague, Matt, I’m so sorry for your loss.
I got to know the notorious RBG when she was just Justice Ginsburg. Today’s law students might not realize that she was well into her eighties when Instagram and Etsy crowned her the queen of coffee mugs, and sweatshirts, and Sundance documentaries. But it’s true, the version that I first met was not the pop culture icon version. It was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken, even socially awkward woman who, and I really wish this was a joke, more than one lawyer at oral argument mistakenly called by Justice O’Connor’s name or vice versa, despite them bearing not even a passing resemblance to each other.
She was utterly unassuming. She was quiet. After the start of her mingling event, where all of the justices met all of the clerks, I came home and told my husband that I had never felt so tall or so loud in my life as I had felt when talking for the first time to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At one point, I literally bent my knees and squatted down a little bit because her decibel level was so low, and because it just seems so awful to keep requiring her to crane her neck to continue the conversation with me.
She was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant and hardworking, and genuine and driven, but she most certainly did not have the sheen of celebrity about her. She was a reluctant hero, an unintentional influencer, far more workhorse than movie star. In fact, the first time I ever heard her laugh was on film, just a few years ago, the RBG documentary producers showed her some footage of Kate McKinnon portraying this insanely hilarious version of her chugging vitamin C powder and doing this cocky dance on Saturday Night Live and it made her chuckle. And this scene was all that the former clerks could talk about on our text threads right after the premiere, this big, genuine, hearty laugh from her. It wasn’t anything that most of us had ever experienced. She’d been a worker, not a laugher, but she was also, in so many ways, the most extraordinarily, warm, giving, helping person, with an absolutely extraordinary devotion to leaving everything better than she found it.
She modeled for me, and for so many of the women at the court that year, what it meant to own your professional space and to give your life to something noble and good. With her remarkable Marty, whom we also loved. She modeled what it meant to be in a truly equal partnership, defined by your own needs, but not by the outside expectations that people had of what your needs should be. She modeled what it meant to think clearly, and to write precisely, and to respect the rule of law for the fragile miraculous thing that it is.
The artwork on the wall of her chambers quoted the Book of Deuteronomy. It read, “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.” And she did this ceaselessly, unflaggingly, indefatigably, until literally her dying day. She penned some of the most significant judicial opinions of all time, and the most significant for the recognition of the right to sex gender-based equal protection under the law. Indeed, if she’d never served a single day on the Supreme court, she still would have been the star of my con law class, a jurisprudential luminary, because her earlier role as the savviest, most gifted litigator of the sex-gender equality movement was so powerfully transformative, so fiercely strategic, so cleverly crafted for its moment in time.
In remarks that she sent to the national constitution center, just this week, upon receiving its Liberty medal, she looked back on that time period as a groundbreaking lawyer and she said, I think with characteristic humility, “Helping to explain what was wrong about the closed door era was enormously satisfying.” While the loss of her is unmeasurable and the cloud that it casts at this already deeply troubled time is dark, and the grief that we feel at this moment is palpable, I think the truest tribute that we can pay to this life well lived is to live well our own lives in the law.
To keep helping, to keep explaining what is wrong with the doors that are still closed, to find satisfaction in hard work and in change-making, to say with her same relentlessness, justice, justice, shall we pursue. May her memory be a blessing to all people who treasure the promises of our constitution. And may we all find the resolve, despite our weariness and heartache, and fatigue, to dig in like she did. To show up and to speak up, and to never ever give up. Thank you, RBG. Thank you for standing so very tall.
Taylor Stephensen Beal: Good evening, everyone. My name is Taylor Stephensen Beal and I’m a third-year law student and the president of the student bar association here at the College of Law. I’ve had the chance to talk to many of our classmates in the last 24 hours and I know that so many of us are struggling to accept that the remarkable Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed. If I’m being honest, I don’t know if I fully processed it myself.
Justice Ginsburg has inspired generations of law students and lawyers across the country. She’s been an incredibly pivotal figure and feminist role model in my life. When I was feeling intimidated and doubtful about applying to law school several years ago, it was her life story that emboldened me to chase after my goals, regardless of how impossible they seemed to me at the time.
She taught us that if a woman who was born in the early 1930s could overcome adversity after adversity, from blatant gender discrimination to her beloved Marty suffering from cancer while they were both parents in law school, that we too can get through obstacles on our paths to our hopes and dreams. She was a fighter from the beginning and she was no stranger to hardship.
I know that this year, dealing with the pandemic and financial hardship and loss of loved ones has been very difficult for all of us students. I hope that as you reflect on Justice Ginsburg’s life, and especially her challenges during her time in law school, you will feel a little bit less lonely in your struggles and know that you too can get through a very difficult school year.
Justice Ginsburg also taught us with wisdom when she said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.” She knew that it takes strong and empowered women to move this country forward. She and her husband, Marty, taught us what true partnership looks like and the strength that comes when we equally support our family members in their goals. She taught us to fight for justice for historically oppressed groups because it is the right thing to do when you are in a position to do so.
She was brilliant, innovative, and irrepressible in this fight. Let us be lawyers who are creative and fierce like she was in this cause. She taught us that sometimes our most important moments and powerful legacies come not when you’re in the majority, but when we competently and respectfully dissent.
Thank you for being here with us tonight, either in person or remotely, I hope you want to remember the unstoppable force that was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I hope you all help us tell the future generations of America her story.
Elizabeth Kronk Warner: I want to thank all of our speakers who shared powerful and impactful stories, and messages, of hope with us tonight. That concludes our scheduled portion, but I do encourage everyone, if you’d like, to still stay and keep her in your thoughts and memorialize her, and celebrate her legacy and a life very well lived. Thank you so much to everybody who joined us in person tonight and those of you who were able to join us virtually. Thank you.