‘RBG’ and Other Notorious Justices

Notorious RGB

Have you met Notorious R.B.G.? The iconic crowned image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with that moniker is featured in posters on law-school walls and on T-shirts worn by law students, celebrating the champion of women’s rights and the personal friend (and public foe) of the late, great Antonin Scalia.

Her title and image come from a book by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik and actually has some great advice in its section on “How to Be Like RGB”: Work for what you believe in; pick your battles; don’t burn your bridges.

I get why the Notorious R.B.G. is celebrated. But it still makes me feel queasy.

Like most people whose careers do serious damage, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not a bad person with bad intentions: She is a good person who allowed her pursuit of a very good thing (in her case women’s rights) to go to horrifying extremes. To preserve women’s equality, she believes a whole class of people — the unborn — are entirely expendable. They can be killed at the will of their parents. Tiny helpless human lives.

Mark my words: The adulation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be replaced by repulsion at her legacy within this century. That always happens to leaders who consign a whole class of people to destruction.

It made me try to think of other notorious Supreme Court Justices who were praised in their day, but who are treated with an embarrassed silence now.

FieldThe Notorious Stephen Johnson Field
(Supreme Court Justice 1863-1897)

A Lincoln appointee, Justice Stephen Johnson Field had much to recommend him. But, like Ginsburg, on the question of condemning a whole class of people to be dominated by another, his record is pretty poor. For him, it was blacks and Chinese immigrants, not the unborn.

He dissented in Strauder v. West Virginia, disagreeing that black people should be allowed on juries. He joined the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson allowing black people to be discriminated against in public transportation. And he wrote the majority opinion in Chae Chan Ping v. United States, noted for its anti-Chinese rhetoric and its sentiments that non-Caucasian cultures should be excluded from the United States.

Hugo BlackThe Notorious Hugo Black
(Supreme Court Justice, 1937 to 1971)

Like many Supreme Court Justices, it is impossible to simply paint Hugo Black as a villain. But it is easy to identify the points at which he, like Notorious R.G.B., decided a whole class of people didn’t matter. As a lawyer he defended E.R. Stephenson, on trial for murdering a Catholic priest. After winning the case, he joined the Ku Klux Klan to help block Catholics from becoming Americans.

As a senator, he filibustered an anti-lynching bill. He did better once he was on the Supreme Court, refusing to condemn the whole class of black people on a couple of occasions. Which is good. But he wrote the court’s majority opinion in Korematsu v. United States making it possible to intern a whole class of people, the Japanese, during World War II. Which is terrifyingly bad.


Henry billings brownThe Notorious Henry Billings Brown (Supreme Court Justice 1891-1906)

A whole book on how to rise to public honor could also be written about Henry Billings Brown, whose career, says his biographer (and friend) Charles Kent, “shows how a man without perhaps extraordinary abilities may attain and honor the highest judicial position by industry, by good character, pleasant manners and some aid from fortune.”

He was highly regarded in his day, known for the dozens of opinions he wrote. Fans of Ruth Bader Ginsburg should note that today he is remembered for only one: The one that has to do with whether he believes a whole class of people can be dominated by another. In Plessy v. Ferguson, to defend sending black people to the backs of buses, he wrote: “If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane.”

Catholics beg to differ. Despite their race or age (including preborn) or social status, being “socially inferior” is no excuse for putting anyone, including the preborn, on a “different plane” when it comes to rights.

Those, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who believe otherwise will not be remembered for any wonderful things they have done for the approved social classes. They will only be remembered for what they did to the least among us, the most helpless. Notorious R.G.B. will be remembered as notorious for denying the right to life for the unborn.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.