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The State of Aloha

Two weeks ago, as another week in this pandemic wound down, I was sitting at my desk in our office when I heard a stir outside my door. A colleague had gasped. Others started to murmur in disbelief. I peered outside and saw my colleague staring at her phone with a look combining shock and sadness on her face. A somber hush fell across our normally lively office.

The news shook lawyers across the country — from modest public defenders’ offices to the whitest of the white shoe law firms. And not only lawyers. Just about everyone took a moment to absorb what was happening. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died at the age of 87.

That night with my family, we talked about the great justice. I told our girls about her experience in law school. In her class of 500 students, she was among nine women. The dean of the school berated them. He demanded that they justify why they deserved to be in the school and take the place of a deserving man. This was not a provincial institution either. It was Harvard Law School.

Justice Ginsburg was no stranger to adversity. While in law school, her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer. She endured. She took her classes, her husband’s classes, and typed his papers for him. And on top of that, she attended to their baby daughter.

Her husband made a complete recovery and thanks to her unwavering support he graduated from law school and got a job at a firm in New York City. Ginsburg wasn’t so lucky.

This was the 1950s. It didn’t matter that Ginsburg was at the top her class. It didn’t matter that she made law review at Harvard and Columbia. Twelve law firms interviewed the accomplished young woman from Brooklyn. No offers came. She was even denied the job working as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter because he could not get his usually brilliant legal mind around the possibility of a woman in his chambers.

She never gave up. She landed a job working for a judge in New York City and took on an international law project at Columbia University and entered the academic life. In 1973, she became the general counsel for the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Her mission was clear: to educate judges and lawyers about sexual discrimination and challenge them in court. To accomplish this, she looked to the strategy of a great civil rights lawyer before her.

Thurgood Marshall attacked legalized racism in this country by carefully selecting cases and challenging them in our appellate courts. Ginsburg did the same. In the 1970s, she gained a national reputation prosecuting appeals and cases to take down legal barriers and discriminatory practices. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the bench. Eleven years later, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Justice Ginsburg’s reputation only grew on the bench. She also was extremely fond of the islands. Her first visit to the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i was in 1998.

She was greeted to the islands in a truly local-style fashion. One professor fondly recalls one of the justice’s early visits. She had a packed schedule in Honolulu, which included an honorary luncheon at the Waioli Tea Room. The dean of the school asked this professor to drive her and her husband back to the hotel.

The professor, not being one to pass up a chance to ride with a Supreme Court justice, chauffeured RBG in what he described as an “old, funky two-door 1985 Datsun.” Her husband squeezed into the backseat. She didn’t make a comment or bat an eye.

The incident obviously did not deter her from returning as a jurist in residence. She made the most of her time in the islands too. Many who were at the law school in 2004 fondly recall taking the justice out to the beach and paddling well beyond the reef to go for a swim. (The school had to negotiate the visit with U.S. Marshals charged with protecting the justice.)

In her later years on the court, Justice Ginsburg became an icon. As the court moved away from recognizing civil liberties, Ginsburg’s dissent grew sharper and sharper. It earned her the moniker “Notorious R.B.G.” It led to movies, T-shirts, coffee mugs, a coloring book, and an opera featuring the justice with her unlikely friend, Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Ginsburg’s final visit to the islands was in 2017. She was greeted with a hula performed by students and planted an ohia lehua tree in the courtyard. The faculty and students associated with the law school will join the rest of the nation as Americans continue to grieve her loss.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com. “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”

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