In downtown Los Angeles, a quiet vigil reflects on the life and work of RBG

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Solemn candlelight vigils in tribute to late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg have surfaced outside the Supreme Court and in many major U.S. cities since news of her death broke late Friday.

In downtown Los Angeles, dozens of people gathered outside the First Street U.S. Courthouse Saturday night to pay their respects, lighting candles and placing bouquets of flowers outside the doors of the courthouse. Some stood and recited Ginsburg’s own words — in particular, the justice’s iconic dissenting opinion in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder.

In 2013, the high court voted 5-4 to strike down key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ruling Section 5 of the Civil Rights-era legislation unconstitutional. That part of the law applied to areas of the U.S. with a recorded history of racial discrimination targeting voting rights.

“Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting — a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s majority opinion on June 25, 2013.

Critics have described the landmark decision as a blow to voting rights of Black, Latino and other minority voters. The effects the court’s ruling would have on how freely states can change their voting laws and what that can mean for certain populations are clearly stated in the dissenting opinion famously authored by Justice Ginsburg. Early on, she uses a direct quote from the majority opinion to make her argument: “[V]oting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”

“But the Court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination,” Ginsburg wrote. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) has worked to combat voting discrimination where other remedies had been tried and failed.”

Outside the federal courthouse in downtown L.A., Laura Nix read the beginning of Ginsburg’s 37-page opinion on equal voting rights, reciting the late justice’s words aloud before a few dozen other people. She passed the pages to another woman there, who also read the dissenting opinion.

“Right now, we’re just reading portions of her dissent on the (Shelby County v. Holder case), and that was a decision that ended up removing voting rights for a good portion of the country,” Nix said.

“We see the results of that now,” Nix said. “We have to protect civil rights for everybody in our country if we’re truly going to have equal justice under the law.”

Voter ID laws and other voting-related legislation have surfaced in several states since the court’s landmark decision just over seven years ago. A 2016 report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that counties previously covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — which was struck down by the high court — closed hundreds of polling places ahead of the election.

“According to an analysis of the study, voters in these counties will have at least 868 fewer places to cast ballots in the 2016 presidential elections than they did in past elections, a 16 percent reduction,” the report read.

In 2018, the nonpartisan U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called on Congress to enact legislation that would address the rollback of voting rights protections. The commission, an independent organization made up of Republicans and Democrats, said at least 23 states have passed “newly restrictive statewide voter laws” since the Shelby County v. Holder decision five years earlier. 

Ginsburg’s legacy as a champion of civil rights and a feminist icon has been felt in many demonstrations since she died from cancer at her home in Washington Friday. Her image and beloved nickname have appeared on signs, some alluding to words spoken by the justice just days before her death.

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” 87-year-old Ginsburg dictated in a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera, according to NPR.

Less than two hours after news of Ginburg’s death broke, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to bring a nominee by President Donald Trump to a Senate vote.

“President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate,” McConnell said in a statement.

The Kentucky Republican refused to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee months ahead of the presidential election in 2016, blocking hearings for federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland. At the time, he said the decision should be left to voters in an election year.

“The hope is that the right thing is done in Washington, and that Justice Ginsburg’s wishes are respected,” said Helene Wasserman, an attorney who attended the vigil.

At vigils in other parts of the country, attendees have held signs with phrases like, “Honor her wish.”

“I very strongly believe that there should not be any kind of nominations to replace her seat on the Supreme Court until the next president is inaugurated,” Nix said.

With just six weeks to the election, Trump promised to make a nomination as he spoke Saturday at a North Carolina rally, where the crowd chanted “Fill that seat.”

The question of how the nomination will be handled remains in limbo as one Republican senator has already expressed opposition to bringing Trump’s pick to a vote. Meanwhile, as Americans mourn her death, Ginsburg’s life as a trailblazer is being celebrated just as much as her work as a jurist.

“Anybody can look to her story, and look where she came from and what she lived through and what her life was like, and realize that you can become anything that you want to be,” Wasserman said, describing Ginsburg as an inspiration particularly to female lawyers like herself.

“As long as you stand up for truth, you stand up for right and you stand up for human rights,” she said. “That’s really what her legacy is.”

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