The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has become a liberal icon and has long been a champion of women’s rights, shocked the political world Friday, leading many Utahns to offer their condolences.
It will upend the presidential race and create an intense fight in the Senate over her replacement, a fight started just hours after her death was announced. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., vowed that President Donald Trump’s nominee would get a vote in the Senate.
Utah’s two senators will likely become central figures in this fight, though for different reasons.
Sen. Mike Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is on Trump’s short list of potential Supreme Court nominees — as is the senator’s brother, Thomas Lee, who is on the Utah Supreme Court.
Outside groups and Democrats are likely to target Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, in their effort to block Trump from naming Ginsburg’s replacement. They’ll argue that since Senate Republicans refused to take up President Barack Obama’s nomination to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia in an election year four years ago, they should do the same this close to an election. They’ll likely pressure Romney because he has shown a willingness to oppose Trump. He was the only Senate Republican to vote for an article of impeachment.
And it will become a focal point in the race between Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, who at this point is leading in the polls.
“A lot of Republicans are going to be in a tough spot,” said Morgan Lyon Cotti, associate director of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. “Should they be held to this argument from four years ago? But we know these judges have an impact for generations. Knowing this might be their last chance to nominate and confirm a judge for some years, that might overrule that.”
On Friday, both Mike Lee and Romney, like many Utahns, issued statements and, at this time, avoided any talk of the looming political fight.
“Justice Ginsburg devoted her entire life to reading, interpreting, and understanding the law," Lee said. “To describe her as a gifted lawyer and jurist who had a profound influence on our country is an understatement.”
Romney said, “Her fight for women’s equality inspired all women to pursue their dreams without limits, and her grit, character and sharp wit made her an iconic and inspirational jurist beloved by people young and old. The beautiful friendship she shared with the late Justice Scalia serves as a reminder to all Americans to treat each other with kindness and respect, despite our differences.”
On Saturday, Gov. Gary Herbert ordered flags in Utah to be lowered in honor of Ginsburg’s passing. In a statement, Herbert called Ginsburg a force of nature.
“She had a keen intellect and a tremendous work ethic,” he said. “She broke through countless barriers, shattering ceilings and leading the way for women to have more involvement in government. She was a true pioneer in every sense.”
Ginsberg died at age 87 from complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton, confirmed in 1993 on a 96-3 vote and became the second woman to sit on the court.
Retired longtime Sen. Orrin Hatch said he recommended Ginsburg to Clinton at a time when such confirmation fights were far less contentious. He described her as “a dear friend," whose influence went “well beyond the Supreme Court.”
“Of course, it’s no secret that Justice Ginsburg and I were on opposite sides on most issues. But we both loved this country greatly, and that was the kindling of a decades-long friendship,” he said. “I hope that as an American family, we can one day look beyond politics to see what’s best in each other as Ruth and I did.”
Ginsburg was a legendary lawyer who argued before the Supreme Court on landmark sex discrimination cases before she became a justice herself.
Former Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham said Friday that she first met Ginsburg 49 years ago. At that time, Ginsburg was a law professor presenting at a seminar at Duke University.
“I came to understand what a pioneer for women, warrior for the rule of law, and friend and supporter for countless numbers she was to the end of her life,” Durham said.
Ginsburg introduced Durham at the Supreme Court when Durham received the Rehnquist Award, which honors a state supreme court justice, in 2007. Durham said, “It was the highlight of my career.”
In recent years, in part driven by books, documentaries and movies, Ginsburg became hugely popular, particularly for a Supreme Court justice.
“She is a pop culture icon,” said Cotti, who also described Ginsburg as “a tiny yet towering figure.”
“Her role in the fight for equality and women’s rights has been more recognized.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said she was “speechless” at Ginsburg’s death.
“She was an iconic, trailblazing, intellectual woman," Mendenhall said. “My thoughts are with her family and our nation."
Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she was heartbroken Friday evening at what she called “the loss of an American hero.”
“Justice Ginsburg broke ground and glass ceilings at the same time. She fought for equality and justice and never backed down in the face of opposition.”
State Sen. Deidre Henderson commented, saying “We have lost a true trailblazer in the passing of Justice Ginsburg.”
Henderson, who is the Republican nominee for Utah lieutenant governor, said Ginsburg paved the way for other women. She referenced one of Ginsburg’s own quotes: “Women belong in all the places decisions are being made.”
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, the Republican nominee for governor, met Ginsburg two years ago when she spoke at the Utah State Bar Convention in Idaho. There, she gave advice to young lawyers, telling them, “Do something outside of yourself. Something that will make a difference.”
Cox said, “She had a brilliant legal mind and was every bit as funny and engaging as advertised. We obviously disagreed on many legal opinions, but honor her legacy as a trailblazer and dedicated public servant.”
Other Utahns got a chance to see Ginsburg when she attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City in 2018 for the premiere of the “RBG” documentary, which chronicled her life and recent ascendence to celebrity and cultural icon.
She called Park City “a wonderful town. It’s part out of a fairy tale, and part looks like Switzerland. I wish I hadn’t given away my skis.”
Tribune reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack contributed to this story.