Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lay in state Friday at the U.S. Capitol as the first woman ever so honored, making history again as she had throughout her extraordinary life while an intensifying election-year battle swirled over her replacement.
The flag-draped casket of Ginsburg, who died last week at 87, drew members of Congress, top military officials, friends and family, some with children in tow, to the Capitol’s grand Statuary Hall, paying respect to the cultural icon who changed American law and perceptions of women’s power.
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, joined other invited guests. His vice presidential running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris said that “RBG,” as she is known by many, cleared a path for women like her in civic life.
“She, first of all, made America see what leadership looks like — in the law, in terms of public service — and she broke so many barriers,” Harris told reporters at the Capitol. “And I know that she did it intentionally knowing that people like me could follow.”
Biden, who was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Ginsburg was confirmed 27 years ago this month, said he was brought back to when he met her back then. “Wonderful memories,” he said.
Mourners gathered to honor Ginsburg under coronavirus distancing restrictions with the nation in political turmoil.
President Donald Trump is to announce a conservative nominee to replace her on Saturday, just weeks before the election. White House officials have indicated to congressional Republicans and outside allies that the nominee will be Indiana’s Amy Coney Barrett but are maintaining a semblance of suspense to let Trump announce her.
His third justice, if confirmed, would be sure to move the court rightward on health care, abortion and other pivotal issues. A Senate confirmation vote would be expected in late October.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was with “profound sorrow” that she welcomed Ginsburg and opened the private service.
She and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer stood under gray skies as Ginsburg’s casket made the short procession from the court’s steps where it had been on public view for several days to the East Front of the Capitol.
The court and the Capitol face each other across the street, separate but equal branches of government, keeping check on each other and also the White House. A military honor guard carried Ginsberg’s casket inside.
Election-season politics have rippled through the commemorations this week. Noticeably absent after being invited to Friday’s service was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is leading the rush to confirm Trump’s nominee while early state voting is underway. No justice has been confirmed so close to a presidential election.
Trump and first lady Melania Trump paid their respects on Thursday as Ginsburg had lain in repose for two days at the Supreme Court, and thousands of people waited outside. Spectators booed and chanted “vote him out” as the president stood silently near Ginsburg’s casket at the top of the court’s front steps.
But Friday’s ceremony focused on Ginsburg’s life and work rather than current controversy. She was the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and the first Jewish person to lie in state at the Capitol. The proceedings included musical selections from one of her favorite opera singers, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves.
Small in stature, large in history, the Brooklyn-born Ginsburg was remembered as an extremely bright Columbia graduate who was passed over for jobs at a time when few women became lawyers, only to go on to reshape the nation’s laws protecting women’s rights and equality.
“Brick by brick, case by case,” said Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, she changed the course of American law.
“Today, she makes history again,” the rabbi said.
Ginsburg will be buried next week in Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband, Martin, who died in 2010. A mother of two, she battled recurring cancer.
As visitors paid tribute at Ginsburg’s casket, resting atop the catafalque used for Abraham Lincoln, the Bidens quietly joined. Joe Biden, who is Catholic, made the sign of the cross before he and his wife clasped hands and walked away.
Fewer Republicans attended the service that was filled with women and Democrats. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both former presidential contenders, were among those attending. The GOP whip, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, was there.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the nation’s top military officers from the joint chiefs of staff paid their respects.
In the line of guests paying tribute, one dropped to the ground and did three quick pushups. It was Bryant Johnson, the justice’s beloved trainer for her popular RBG workouts.
Members of the House and Senate who were not invited because of space limitations imposed by the coronavirus were able to pay their respects before the motorcade carrying Ginsburg’s casket departed the Capitol in early afternoon.
As the hearse pulled away, lawmakers, many of them women, including Pelosi, waved good-bye.
The honor of lying in state has been accorded fewer than three dozen times, mostly to presidents, vice presidents and members of Congress. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, was the most recent following his death in July. Henry Clay, the Kentucky lawmaker who served as speaker of the House and also was a senator, was the first in 1852. Rosa Parks — a private citizen, not a government official — is the only woman who has lain in honor, a separate commemoration, at the Capitol.