WASHINGTON — Late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg broke one last glass ceiling Friday, becoming the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol as lawmakers and members of the military paid tribute to her trailblazing career that changed the face of gender equality in the United States.
Many of Congress’ female members, Capitol Hill aides, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the Joint Chiefs of Staff walked past Ginsburg’s flag-draped casket in Statuary Hall, honoring the justice who was “monumental in impact,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described her.
“Her life and leadership cemented the truth that all men and women are created equal,” Pelosi said in a statement issued after brief remarks at the ceremony.
Ginsburg, who served for 27 years and was the second female justice on the Supreme Court, died Sept. 18 at age 87 of complications from cancer. She will be buried in a private ceremony next week at Arlington National Cemetery, alongside her husband, Marty.
Her casket rested upon the Lincoln catafalque, or casket platform, as Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt offered a eulogy and Denyce Graves, one of opera aficionado Ginsburg’s favorite singers, offered a traditional spiritual, “Deep River,” and a patriotic song, “American Anthem,” in somber serenade.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, and his wife, Jill, traveled to the Capitol to honor Ginsburg.
But it was the women of Congress who played the most noticeable — albeit silent — role, making up the majority of the invitation-only guests at the brief memorial service. When Ginsburg’s casket departed the Capitol, the lawmakers stood in line on the steps of the East Front, hands over their hearts, to bid her farewell.
“What she did for women not only has changed our country, but I think has changed the world,” said Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind.
Lying in state is the U.S. government’s highest form of tribute, normally reserved for presidents, military leaders and distinguished lawmakers. Ginsburg is only the second Supreme Court Justice to receive the honor; the late president William Howard Taft, who also was a chief justice, lay in state in 1930.
“Look at all the men on the Supreme Court — I doubt that this kind of tribute will be paid to any of them,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, who was assistant legal director at the ACLU shortly before Ginsburg launched its Women’s Rights Project, where she argued six landmark gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She won five, cementing equal access to mortgages, banking services, jury representation and pension, caregiving and military benefits.
“Her most brilliant work was done in winning those five women’s rights cases,” Holmes Norton said.
Female lawmakers said the precedent-setting recognition for Ginsburg is a testament to how dramatically women’s rights have changed as a result of her lifetime crusade.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., recalled how, earlier this summer, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., the youngest woman in Congress, delivered a floor speech to protest an insult from a male congressman and a “culture” that normalizes “violent language against women.”
“If I had done that when I was younger, I would have been fired; I wouldn’t have had a job. ... People do not understand that that was really the experience of a lot of people of my generation,” Dingell said, reflecting on Ginsburg’s work. “She brought to the courts, to everything that she did — she experienced it — and she is the first generation. I am where I am because she helped open the doors.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the youngest Republican woman in Congress, said she credits Ginsburg and the women of her generation with paving the way for others to break barriers, “even if you disagreed with some of her decisions.”
“She really lived so many generational changes that women faced,” Stefanik said. “She’s the first, but she will not be the last to lie in state.”
Absent from the ceremony were many of the top congressional Republicans, a reminder of the political fight over President Donald Trump’s plan to nominate a conservative replacement for the liberal icon within weeks of the election. An announcement is planned today.
Ginsburg’s dying wish was for the president elected on Nov. 3 to choose her successor, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is moving to fill the seat as voters are casting early ballots.
McConnell did not attend the service; his spokesman declined to comment on his whereabouts or schedule. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., also did not attend.
A Pelosi spokesman said McConnell and McCarthy were invited. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., was the most senior Republican in attendance.
Democrats said the current political crossroads weighed on them as they reflected on Ginsburg’s legacy.
“We owe so much to her, and we have to recommit ourselves to continue the fight for justice and equality for all in this country,” Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., said. “That journey continues ... not only in the hall of Congress, but corporate boards and for Black and brown people, immigrants, especially women.”
Democratic Party vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said Ginsburg cleared a path for women like her to thrive.
“It’s very important, I think, that, in the midst of being 39 days away from an election, that we honor one of the, I think, greatest Americans, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in terms of all that she did, all that she inspired, all that she empowered, both legally and just in terms of the way she lived her life,” Harris told reporters after the service.
A pioneer and a cultural icon, Ginsburg also is the first Jewish person to lie in state.
“Today, we stand in sorrow and, tomorrow, we the people must carry on Justice Ginsburg’s legacy,” Holtzblatt, whose husband, Ari, clerked for Ginsburg, said in her eulogy. “She was our prophet, our north star, our strength, for so very long. Now, she must be permitted to rest after toiling so hard for every single one of us.”