RBG, ACB and Me....Federalism, Friendship and the A-words that matter most of all

RBG, ACB and Me....Federalism, Friendship and the A-words that matter most of all
RBG and me, circa 1993-4, at the Palmer House for a bar association luncheon /photo/Paul McGrath

 

So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great, good fortune                             Ruth Bader Ginsburg

 

I started law school in January, 1991.  It was a new decade, and I’d just turned 40.  I was only a few years younger than Amy Coney Barrett is now, and yesterday was her first day as a member of the United States Supreme Court. Who would have thought?

I had a million things I was doing when I started.  A career as a writer was one.  And I had lots of friends and activities and interests.  And a family. They told us during orientation week–a week geared to getting us thinking like lawyers–to forget all that stuff and commit ourselves to learning–and thinking–law full time.  So we could become good lawyers as we went forth to receive our law licenses, all ready for framing.

One of my friends alway said I went to law school with one arm tied behind my back.  I wasn’t young, or unencumbered and I liked doing lots of other stuff–besides studying.  I told her even if I get all Ds, I don’t care.  As long as I graduate, pass the bar exam and get a law license.

I ended up getting mostly Bs, a few Cs, four As (in constitutional law, legal ethics, real estate transactions and evidence) and one D+.  In administrative law.

Ironically, when I went to work for the City of Chicago as a prosecutor, I ended up becoming an expert of sorts in administrative law.  For four years, I prosecuted vehicle impoundment cases for the City dealing with prostitution, guns, drugs and fly dumping.  The legal concept was sort of “new” in terms of what Chicago was doing.  As I learned more and more about the ordinances that I was prosecuting vehicles under (their owners actually), judges called me all the time to thrash out the ins and outs of these new laws.

When I noticed loopholes in the four ordinances, I went to the city council, and the aldermen made the changes I thought were needed.

When a case from Michigan dealing with its ordinance of the same nature wound up in the US Supreme Court, Michigan prosecutors called me for sustenance.  I gave them several arguments that I would use and pointed out which was my favorite and most persuasive.  They won the case;  it was unanimously affirmed by all nine justices.

But there were several concurrences (different theories but all coming to the same conclusion), one of which was written by Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself.  She’d adopted my favorite argument hook, line and sinker.  It was her favorite, too, apparently!  And I was thrilled.  I’ve told this story with much pride many times from the mid-1990s until this minute.

Back to my law school grades, the A in constitutional law became more quizzical for me as my legal education went on.  I loved “con” law and understood it for sure.  But oddly, my grades in criminal law, criminal procedure and federal criminal law were mediocre, even though so much in tackling those subjects depends on a deep understanding of constitutional law.

At some point in my legal career, when I was defending criminal appeals for the State of Illinois, I figured out why.   And I was able to explain it not long ago to my criminal procedure teacher–who’d given me a C+–25 + years before–when we coincidentally sat next to each other at a dinner where we were both up for writing awards.

“I could never get the dissents out of my head,” I said.  “They all made sense to me, as much as the majority opinions did in every case, maybe more so.”

So it was hard for me to get the “right” answers on the tests, because I couldn’t help taking the  legal reasoning as a “whole.”  Majority opinions and dissents–I agreed with everything!

And I loved reading all the cases we had to on a daily basis–to me any dispute, criminal charge or lawsuit filed that ended up in court had a great story behind it.  Each one was like a novel.  I also loved reading the first cases that stood out and stood for the underpinnings of our new country, the ones that interpreted for the first time our Constitutional clauses–and which have continued to be fodder for consternation until this day.

The first week in law school, I hooked up immediately with another mom from my generation and we decided we’d be out in way less than three years (the typical amount of time it took to get a law school education). Which was unusual.  But we wanted to rush–and get back to our lives with our law degrees and new careers.  And no tests.  We were too old to be students–but it was sort of fun, but not for too long.

We did it.  We could have done it even faster, but they wouldn’t let us, and we languished our last semester with hardly any courses on our schedule.

When I started law school, I decided to give up my feature story and column writing altogether.  But I found the classrooms I was in so profoundly nutty, my husband told me to write at least one more story–about what those first few weeks were like.  So I wrote this piece for the Chicago Reader–and I ended up with a dunce cap on my head for the rest of my legal education.  I was 40-years-old and my feeling was, so what?  (I couldn’t wait to study the First Amendment.)

But I got noticed.  Not enough to write for the law review, but enough to write for the law school publication called “Decisive Utterance.”

Before the first semester ended, the Chicago Tribune (which had already given my musings much ink over the years) gave  me my lifelong dream come true:  my own Sunday column, which I wrote through the rest of law school–and for some time after.

I never stopped writing, or living my life the way I wanted, and law school continued apace.

And so I’ve been watching Amy Coney Barrett’s quite amazing trajectory onto the US Supreme Court to replace our beloved RBG with great interest.

Barrett is as fascinating as RBG.

With few words, Barrett knows what to say and how to say it.  She is penurious when discussing cases that may come before her, pending cases and the affairs of the day  that may impact the cases and controversies of tomorrow.

Which is exactly how she should be.

She knows the cases, and their names and the fine points of them all.  She knows what they stand for, and the implications for a jurist.  I’ve only read one of her opinions, so far–she sat in our circuit as an appeals court judge for three years, the one that covers federal cases in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

I knew the case intimately, as it was filed by close friends of mine,   They lost, but her reasoning on appeal was as simple, precision-like and as well-advised as anything I’ve seen.  Not an extra word, personal thought or showboat paragraph.  It was impressive.  And as much as I empathize with my friends, whose loss she affirmed, I totally understood Barrett’s well-chosen words and clipped expressions of her thinking.

With her seven kids in tow at her intro in Washington, and a description of her husband–as apt as any in her opinions–as quite a helpmate husband, I thought back to my own husband during my  legal education and the beginning of my own legal career.

My husband at the time was a helpmate, as well, but he admitted that he was depressed because I was living a new life and he was still living our old one and holding down the fort pretty well, too.  He had nothing to look forward to, he said, and I had everything.

We didn’t have seven kids but we did have an autistic one. And like the name of the first book I read about autism, shortly after we found out Molly was autistic–The Siege–that’s what it was.  Perplexing and painful.  It was a siege, and a tsunami, a hurricane and a tornado.  All landing and engulfing us at once.

When I ran for judge too soon after becoming a lawyer (I felt I had no time to lose), and went before the bar associations for evaluation, they treated me in a similar way that that the Democrats treated Barrett–dismissively, rudely, argumentatively.  She took it.  I took it.  Affter 20 years of seething, I was ready in 2018 to take them them on in this piece.  (And you might say I got another dunce cap on my head.)

One day, one of my younger classmates in law school asked me to attend a Federalist Society meeting with her in one of the classrooms.  All I knew is that we lived in a federal republic of 50 states and it sounded like a worthy pursuit:  to learn more of what the founders had in mind and whether the constitution is a living document expected to change–or one to be strictly construed forever.  Should the justices make law?  Or should they help state and federal legislators do things “right?”  Is the right to privacy assumed as part of the document?  Or because P-R-I-V-A-C-Y isn’t spelled out, is it verboten as a concept?

I can barely remember what we talked about.  But I never forgot being there, especially since the name of the organization has become a lighting rod. The idea that states have rights makes both sides of that issue want to kill each other.

During that time, I also met Supreme Court  justices who came to town  to speak–like RBG.  When my husband snapped the picture of us above, he had just told her that her nomination was the best thing President Clinton would do during his presidency, which was prescient and true.

I wrote about the justices I met for the school–and for the Reader.  And I also mentioned RBG in my Tribune column.  (Since those days, I’ve collected her exercise and her coloring books and “The Notorious RBG.” And I’ve seen her movies–the documentary and the feature.  And Molly became a fan, too.  She’s now an artist, and has almost completed a beautiful drawing of her which will soon be for sale.

I received two lovely pieces of correspondence from Ruth Bader Ginsburg–from her Supreme Court  office, complimenting my writing and thanking me for mentioning her.  A federal  judge who was very fond of me, and a friend of hers, had sent her my “clippings.”

Later, I joined the board  of RBG’s son, Jim’s not-for-profit recording company, Cedille Records.  And RBG joined us at our fundraiser for six years.  This picture  was one of several taken over those years at that event:  my daughter Molly, me, my cousin Debbie, my fiancé Bruce, my cousin Ginny–and RBG.

bonnie-mcgrath-with-justice-ginsburg-2017

And this is a print I got at one of the soirees of RBG’s caricature by New Yorker artist Tom Bachtell that graced the wonderful album, Notorious RBG in Song, written and sung primarily by Jim’s wife, Patrice Michaels, of operatic vignettes that basically told the story of her wonderful life.

notorious-rbg

Once, I emailed Jim a screen shot from street view of a house I thought was his mother’s when she was growing up in Brooklyn.   He forwarded it to her and she sent an email back which he forwarded to me.  Her verdict? Nope, not it.  Like a fool, I argued that it was the right address so the house was probably remodeled or rebuilt since she’d left.  I was arguing against a Supreme Court justice! And the smartest one on the court, too. And about something she certainly would know better than me.  But to this day, I hold my ground that this is the ground she lived on.

ruth-bader-ginsburg-house-in-high-school

Another time Jim and his wife Patrice and my fiancé Bruce and I had dinner in Old Town (it was the second Friday before the 2016 presidential election, and Jim Comey had just announced he was re-opening the Hillary email investigation).  After dinner we went to Second City and sure enough, there was an irreverent skit about RBG and how she better not die anytime soon. For obvious reasons.

It was cute and funny.  And Jim and Patrice didn’t seem bothered.  And Bruce laughted out loud, and if memory serves me, even patted Jim on the back.  But I was immensely uncomfortable.  They were making comedy (as supportive of her as it was) of someone’s mother’s death.  The person with whom I was watching the show!

A lovely man, I might add, who’d supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, against the wife of the man who’d put his mom on the Supreme Court.  And before that, in 2015,  Chuy Garcia for mayor against Rahm, a true-blue Clinton guy.

I finally asked Jim not long ago if these were kosher choices he was making–publicly–but he said his mom was fine with it all.

I always marveled at RBG’s open mind, her array of friends–and her family’s devotion to her in every way.

As everyone knows, she and the late  Antonin Scalia were the best of friends.  Opera brought them close.  And they spent every New Year’s Eve together with their spouses.

They were big opera fans and served as supernumeraries (a non-speaking, non-singing “extra” onstage) together.  Something I have also done with Lyric Opera.  They loved opera together.  Like some of my best friends and I do–and that love of opera is what makes us best friends and diehard compatriots forever.

Most importantly, they both loved the US constitution.  Although they sure saw it differently.  But they respected each other, and each other’s diametrically opposed thinking.

RBG also had a good friend–music binding them together, as well–who was young, black and Republican.  She was about to perform his marriage when she died.  He wrote a beautiful and moving story for the New York Times about how their friendship started and how and why it progressed.

All of which is to say that I think RBG would have become good friends with ACB. Both known to be lucky enough to have very supportive husbands– also known to be good cooks.  (Btw, I am the proud owner of Martin Ginsburg’s cookbook, which is harder than Julia Child’s.)  Maybe they’d have a mother/daughter relationship or even a grandmother/granddaughter one.  Certainly mentor/mentee would be very much in order.  But now someone else will have to do the job for Barrett.

I don’t think an open-minded Jew like RBG would think ACB would be a candidate for an exorcism because of the “the dogma that lives loudly within” her–or even for a dose of  Pepto-Bismol.

After all, RBG had the sense and honesty and courage–and the lovely manners to say, once they were colleagues that Brett Kavanaugh was a very decent man.  As is Amy decent.  The constitutional differences on the court to be continued and thrashed out many times, behind closed doors and in writing.  (Although, I often tell my friends they’d be surprised at the times RBG signed on with Clarence Thomas.)

And while RBG’s and ACB’s personal and professional views might differ on those hot-button A-word topics, abortion and ACA, as to the constitutional right to abortion; and whether the ACA can survive its severing, and on a million other things, I think there would never have been a loss of respect or friendship between them.  Ever.

And I suspect, if they’d been on the Court simultaneously rather than consecutively, the A-words Abortion and ACA would have been replaced in their hearts by A-words like Amicable, Amiable and Affection.

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