The Supreme Court has had a file on me since I was 13.
In 2011, I wrote a letter every week to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, hoping for a reply. I kept a tally: 40 letters to 1 First St. NE, zero replies.
When I learned that thousands of letters landed in the Supreme Court’s basement mailroom, I realized the slim likelihood that mine would ever reach Justice Ginsburg, and stopped writing.
But the spark that prompted my letters did not diminish. I began to read Supreme Court opinions, to download and listen to oral arguments while on runs, and to find every scrap of information on Justice Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.
As an attorney, Justice Ginsburg won a string of cases cementing the concept that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause applied to discrimination on the basis of sex. I listened to the oral arguments and read the briefs for every single case.
Noticing what could accurately be described as my obsession, an acquaintance forwarded me a ticket to hear Justice Ginsburg speak at a Bar Association event when I was 15. I jumped at the chance to be in the same cavernous ballroom as Justice Ginsburg. By the time I arrived that evening, the Bar Association president had arranged for me to sit at Justice Ginsburg’s table.
Seated at the opposite end, I could barely swallow my salmon. During dinner, Justice Ginsburg learned that I had listened to all of her Supreme Court arguments and read all of her opinions and dissents from 22 years on the bench.
After the dinner, judges and lawyers crowded around Justice Ginsburg. But her assistant said the justice wanted to see me and guided me toward her. Moments later, I was face to face with my hero.
We chatted and she asked me a few questions; I stammered responses. When she leaned in for a hug, the photographer snapped a picture. The inscribed photo remains a tangible reminder of the most exciting night of my life.
A year before I met her, Justice Ginsburg authored and read from the bench a stinging dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, a case in which the Supreme Court gutted the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
In a quote that would spread across the media, she denounced the majority’s opinion as “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” The case, and Justice Ginsburg’s powerful dissent, would spark my interest in and commitment to pursue voting rights law.
Justice Ginsburg’s work as both lawyer and judge was grounded in a broad view of equal protection. Her career included challenging the forced sterilization of Black women in North Carolina, giving women like Lilly Ledbetter a fair shot at rectifying pay discrimination, and above all, protecting a woman’s right to an abortion, in a country and on a court bent on eroding that right.
Her relentless pursuit of equality — along with the lace jabots, “Notorious RBG” memes and her remarkable ability to do pushups into her 80s — compose the entirety of Justice Ginsburg’s legacy for me.
Growing up means learning even your heroes are flawed. Justice Ginsburg insensitively referred to quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s act of taking a knee during the national anthem as “dumb and disrespectful” (she apologized), and she rejected the Oneida Indian Nation’s sovereignty over their own land.
To me, these errors make her human, and serve as a reminder that the work continues.
As young people inheriting a world with too much inequity and too little justice, our responsibility is not simply to replicate the work of Justice Ginsburg but to take it further.
Last Friday morning, Sept. 18, I received my law school admission test scores. Hours later, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I learned that Justice Ginsburg had died. My decision to go to law school can be traced directly back to those letters I wrote almost a decade ago. And my dedication to a career protecting the right to vote likewise stems from that iconic line in her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder.
I imagine countless young people — many of them young women who have grown up with the knowledge that we control our own bodies and credit cards, that we are entitled to equal pensions and must be equally inconvenienced by jury service — felt the same way.
As an ACLU lawyer at the outset of her career, Justice Ginsburg was known for commanding majorities on largely conservative courts in sex discrimination cases by framing the issues carefully and incrementally. As a justice at the end of her career, her dissents reverberated widely and brought her fame.
In an interview, Justice Ginsburg explained, “So that’s the dissenters’ hope: that they are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.”
In the shadow of Justice Ginsburg’s long and life-changing career, I now hope to move toward tomorrow.
Leah Smith graduated from Yale University in 2020. She is currently working on a horse farm in Temecula, Calif., and applying to law schools (class of 2024). She attended Krieger Schechter Day School, Park School for high school, and is a member, along with her family, of Beth Am Synagogue.