By Sarah K. Lanzo
Upon hearing the sad news about the passing of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at age 87, my first reaction was to wonder “What will happen to the rights of people with disabilities?”.
Known as a liberal on the US Supreme Court, RBG, (as she was called), was one of those people who could look past the “window dressings” of a given case and keep in mind the key issue: that no matter your color, race, gender, or disability (to mention a few), if you were an American, you had the same rights and privileges as anyone else, regardless of your position in our society.
She has been such an important contributor to the remarkable changes in the last 27 years by adding her intelligence, wisdom, and interpretation to landmark decisions like:
- Equal treatment of women: she wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, (1996) ruling that Virginia Military Institute’s plans to create an entirely separate educational program for women, simply because of their gender, would deny them full citizenship stature.
- Independent Living for people with disabilities: she wrote the Court’s ruling in Olmstead v. L.C. (1999), which determined that the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 required that those with substantial disabilities who were capable and willing to live in a community-based program, who could be reasonably accommodated, had a right to the least restrictive setting.
- Wage discrimination: When the high Court ruled against workers’ rights to sue employers over gender-based wage discrimination past the existing statute of limitations deadline in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007), she read a critical dissent from the bench. This prompted legislators to craft the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which extended the limitation period to file a suit with each unfair paycheck.
- The rights of LGBTQ Americans: RBG’s vote was one of the five Justices whose ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) overturned many states’ bans on same-sex marriages and their refusal to recognize these legal marriages which occurred elsewhere, legalizing it in all states.
These are just the few impressive milestones that directly influence me and my chosen career in disability services and advocacy.
Now, as a professional woman, I respect and appreciate what RBG went through. She was a woman who excelled academically and became a professor at Rutgers Law School, but spent years trying to bridge the “glass ceiling” to be hired by a law firm as more than a law clerk or researcher, inspiring her to become a champion of women’s rights. She co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, winning five of the six gender discrimination cases she argued before the High Court. She served 13 years on the US Court of Appeals in Washington DC, before her promotion to Associate Justice. Those on both sides of the political divide have praised her!
Now the scary part. Rumors out of Washington indicate that the reappointment of this critical seat on the Supreme Court is to be “fast-tracked”, in defiance of RBG’s stated last wish that the new President, whoever was inaugurated in January 2021, name her replacement, when the time came.
My concern here is that the then-unbalanced Supreme Court will slow down, if not stop, or even reverse, the wonderful advancements our Country has made for people with disabilities. Things like reducing everyone’s taxes by assuring that people with disabilities can compete and work, own property, pay taxes themselves, and contribute to our society -- instead of living in institutionalized nightmares. Every day I see the advancements that people with disabilities are making to our community because of “liberal thinking” like RBG’s. To lose the opportunity for the Supreme Court to debate, exchange ideas, and wrestle with these very important aspects of life, could ultimately prevent your family member, neighbor, or friend from having the right to live in our neighborhoods, work in our communities, and engage in our great society. That would sully everything she stood for, and truly be tragic!
Sarah K. Lanzo is the Director of Independent Living of Niagara County, a member of the Western New York Independent Living Inc. Family of Agencies. They empower individuals with any disabilities to gain the information and resources needed to improve their quality of life and participate in society on an equal basis. For more information about ILNC's services and programs please contact: (716) 284-4131, ext. 200.