Thousands Gather to Remember Ginsburg as Justice and American Icon

September 23, 2020 by Dan McCue
The flag-draped casket of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – The crowd began gathering early behind the aluminum railing that ran up and down East Capitol Street Wednesday morning.

Some said they’d journeyed to the neighborhood the night before to scope out their logistics for the day ahead.

One woman, wearing a facemask covered with images of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that she said her mother had made for her, said a kindly police officer had told her the funeral procession for the late justice would turn from Independence Avenue and on to First Street, NE.

She and a friend, having traveled from Merritt Island, Florida, to pay their respects to the late justice, who died of cancer last week at 87 after 27 years on the court, nervously decided to skip the line and stand across the street on the U.S. Capitol grounds.

“We got here about 6 a.m., and First Street was already closed,” the friend said.

The problem was they weren’t sure which end of the street Ginsburg’s hearse would arrive from. Both corners were blocked by large sanitation trucks with a single police car parked in the gap between them.

It wasn’t until shortly after 9 a.m. they finally learned the policeman hadn’t steered them wrong.

A black van and the hearse pulled onto First Street from the Independence Avenue side and idled in front of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. As the cars waited, Supreme Court police, Supreme Court staffers and clerks for the various justices filed out of the courthouse and took positions on the front steps.

It was only then that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began the last leg of her final journey to the court she loved.

“You shoot video and I’ll take photographs,” one of the Florida women said to the other.

A few steps away a family turned its back to the scene to be photographed with history as their backdrop.

Inside, the court’s remaining eight justices, all of them wearing face masks, gathered for the first time in more than six months.

Though lawmakers across the street in the Capitol are already fulminating over President Donald Trump’s intention to name Ginsburg’s replacement as soon as Saturday, those gathered inside the court’s Great Hall were immune from the very public debate.

Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts, with both her portrait and flag-draped casket nearby, focused his remarks exclusively on his longtime friend and colleague.

The best words to describe Ginsburg are “tough, brave, a fighter, a winner,” Roberts said, but also “thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest.”

The woman who late in life became known in admiration as the Notorious RBG “wanted to be an opera virtuoso, but became a rock star instead,” Roberts said.

Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of Washington, D.C., compared Ginsburg to a prophet who imagined a world of greater equality and then worked to make it happen.

“This was Justice Ginsburg’s life’s work. To insist that the Constitution deliver on its promise, that we the people would include all the people. She carried out that work in every chapter of her life,” said Holtzblatt, whose husband, Ari, once worked as a law clerk to Ginsburg.

Ginsburg’s two children, Jane and James, and other family members sat on one side of the casket, across from the justices.

The members of the court were arrayed in their seats in order of seniority, now changed by Ginsburg’s death so that Justices Clarence Thomas and Stephen Breyer flanked Roberts. Breyer took the spot Ginsburg held when the court last gathered for a justice’s memorial, in 2019 following the death of John Paul Stevens.

Since Ginsburg’s death Friday evening, people have been leaving flowers, notes, placards and all manner of Ginsburg paraphernalia outside the court in tribute. Court workers cleared away the items and cleaned the court plaza and sidewalk in advance of Wednesday’s ceremony.

Inside, the entrance to the courtroom, along with Ginsburg’s chair and place on the bench next to Roberts, have been draped in black, a longstanding court custom.

Her casket, carried inside past her former law clerks who lined the courthouse steps, is to be on public view until 10 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

On Friday, Ginsburg will lie in state at the Capitol, the first woman to do so and only the second Supreme Court justice after William Howard Taft. Taft had also been president. Rosa Parks, a private citizen not a government official, is the only woman who has lain in honor at the Capitol.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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