WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts says the words that best describe the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are “tough, brave, a fighter, a winner” but also “thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest.”
Roberts spoke Wednesday during a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. After the ceremony, Ginsburg’s flag-draped casket was placed at the top of the court’s front steps. That was so that the public can pay their respects to the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court in line with public health guidance for the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of people are expected to pay their respects throughout the day to the women’s rights champion, leader of the court’s liberal bloc and feminist icon who died last week at 87. Washington is already consumed with talk of Ginsburg’s replacement, but at the court, Roberts’ focus was on Ginsburg.
“Her voice in court and in our conference room was soft, but when she spoke people listened,” Roberts said of Ginsburg.
Ginsburg’s casket arrived at the court at 9:30 a.m. and was carried into the court’s Great Hall, past her former law clerks who lined the steps.
Inside, the court’s remaining eight justices, all of them wearing masks, were together for the first time since the building was closed in March and they resorted to meetings by telephone. Because of the pandemic, however, chairs for the justices were spaced apart.
Ginsburg will lie in repose for two days at the court where she served for 27 years and, before that, argued six cases for gender equality in the 1970s. Ginsburg’s casket will be on public view from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.
Nearly 500 members of the public had gathered to pay their respects Wednesday morning, some of them traveling long distances.
Heather Setzler, a physician’s assistant from Raleigh, North Carolina, started her drive to Washington at 1 a.m. to be at the court.
“There was just something about her. She was so diminutive yet turned out to be such a giant,” Setzler said, wearing a face mask adorned with small portraits of Ginsburg.
Since Ginsburg’s death Friday evening, people have been leaving flowers, notes, placards and all manner of Ginsburg paraphernalia outside the court in tribute to the woman who became known in her final years as the “Notorious RBG.” 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. These visual signs of mourning, which in years past have reinforced the sense of loss, will largely go unseen this year. The court begins its new term Oct. 5, but the justices will not be in the courtroom and instead will hear arguments by phone.
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 as opposed to a government official, is the only woman who has lain in honor at the Capitol.
Ginsburg will be buried beside her husband, Martin, in a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery next week. Martin Ginsburg died in 2010. She is survived by a son and a daughter, four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
Ginsburg’s death from cancer has added another layer of tumult to an already chaotic election year. President Donald Trump and Senate Republicans are plowing ahead with plans to have a new justice on the bench, perhaps before the Nov. 3 election. Trump was expected to pay his respects to Ginsburg on Thursday.
Only Chief Justice Roger Taney, who died in October 1864, died closer to a presidential election. President Abraham Lincoln waited until December to nominate his replacement, Salmon Chase, who was confirmed the same day.
When Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg’s closest friend on the court, died unexpectedly in 2016, Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama’s high-court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.