They say people live after they die. I didn’t know her, at least in the personal sense. But I know about her—in life, on the bench, and now in death.
I’m one of her people—a lawyer and a writer. I know she was a giant at five feet one, with a shy smile and serious eyes. Everyone I know knows her the same way I did. I’m a writer; so was she. I write small, not like her. She writes for all of us and has been doing so for most of her eighty-seven years until her light dimmed on September 18, 2020.
What ethical norms apply when we write about giants like the notorious RBG?
What you write has to be the kind of truth she knew. “Women will only have true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.” It should be in a voice she heard. And it should be a testament to what she believed. And what she said with that irrepressible grin on her face. “There will be enough women on the nine-seat Supreme Court when there are nine.”
Let’s say there are others who want to cash in on her death. They speak about her replacement before her funeral. Don’t write what they say; let them glower while you mourn. Besides, she really isn’t replaceable, is she? We have to talk and write about her as ethically as she was. We should write about her, not so much as a Supreme Court Justice, but more as a woman loved by all, feared by some, and as kind as she was fierce. As John Updike put it, she survived every moment except that last one. How many writers hope for the same fate?
If anyone could fly from death, just for the love of the law, it was she. She flew through four earlier impending deaths. Who can say she’s not still flying, still making a difference, still soaring above the fray, still dissenting and winning and looking down on inequality from her bench, wearing her trademark white lace collar over her gleaming black robe. Write about that—it’s one of her many truths.
Cervantes said until death, it’s all life. For RBG, it was all law, all gender equality. Those who knew her best are not mourning silently—they are writing about her and for her. Others are writing about replacing her. Her voice will reverberate in SCOTUS opinions. At the very least it should not be silenced by those who would replace her in lieu of mourning her.
Who is to say that Socrates did not have her in mind when he wrote, “Four things belong to a judge. To hear courteously. To answer wisely. To consider soberly. To decide impartially.”
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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