She had taught them something about persistence, so the loyal admirers of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrived at the Supreme Court nearly 12 hours before her body. Four of them stayed the night, and a dozen arrived before dawn. They came from Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Vermont and Louisiana. Lawyers. A counselor. A Coast Guard officer. A single mom.
They watched as a black hearse arrived at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, and from it emerged Ginsburg’s casket draped in an American flag. It was carried slowly up the steps, between dozens of the justice’s former law clerks, and inside the court for a private ceremony.
Soon after, the casket reemerged, positioned between the towering marble columns and behind a row of white hydrangeas. At the bottom of the steps, members of the public were permitted to pass by, pausing for a moment to take photos, bow their heads or say a prayer.
The first to do so were Mary and Vicki Migues-Jordan, who had been at the Court since 9:45 p.m. Tuesday. They’d driven in from Maryland and planned to stay at a hotel, but when they went to the court to scope out where they would wait, they realized they had the chance to be first in line. “We looked at each other and said, 'It’s not that cold,” said Mary, 55.
“We would do it for the pope, but other than that, I can’t imagine spending the night on the street for anyone else,” Vicki said.
They opened their camp chairs, wrapped themselves in blankets, and settled in for hours of little sleep and long talks about what this woman had meant to them.
“When I first saw her, I remember thinking, ‘They’re going to chew her up and spit her out,’” Mary said. “But she was this tiny little thing who took over a room when she walked in.”
As an attorney, Mary tried to emulate Ginsburg’s ability to make every word count. She had a Ginsburg action figure and a sweatshirt with her face on it. But to her, there was so much more to the justice than the “notorious” version that decorated totebags. The couple was reminded of that this summer, when the high court ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from discrimination based on sex. Their own son didn’t understand what the big deal was.
“The big deal is yesterday I could have been fired because of who I love, and it’s 2020,” Mary said.
Every time a car passed over a heavy metal plate in the road, the women were jolted awake. They could have easily left and come back in the morning. Instead, they used their hotel for bathroom breaks only, and shared the key with the other two people determined to stay the night: Doug Smith, 53, and his daughter, a 21-year-old college senior. They’d driven four hours from Pittsburgh to arrive at 10 p.m.
“When I was a younger man, I waited out all night for concert tickets,” Smith said. “And this woman is a definition of a rock star. So yeah, waiting out all night for her? I can do that.”
As soon as he’d seen the Supreme Court’s announcement about the week’s memorial services, Smith had texted his wife and daughters: “I’m going to D.C. Does anyone want to go with me?”
“The impact she’s had on my wife and my daughters, there’s just no way to envision what their lives would be like without the work of Justice Ginsburg,” Smith said. “I could not not be here.”
His older daughter, who was doing homework at the time, immediately responded that she would go with him, even though her college prohibited her from leaving her campus because of coronavirus restrictions. She declined to give her name because if her university found out she was off campus, she could lose her housing.
“I knew if it came down to it, I could stare down the university and say, ‘This is where my values stand,’” she said.
The higher the sun rose, the longer the line grew. By the time the casket arrived, the road between the court and the Library of Congress was filled with hundreds, and by noon, the line stretched to the library’s parking lot. In the after-work hours, it wrapped around four city blocks, as people of all backgrounds and ages pushed strollers and carried flowers, waiting for their turns.
Although justices usually lie in repose at the court for a single day, Ginsburg’s casket will be available for the public to view from a distance for two 11-hour stints on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Friday, the casket will be taken across the street to the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall, where an invite-only memorial will be held and where she will lie in state atop the catafalque, built for President Abraham Lincoln’s casket in 1865. She will be the first woman in history to receive the honor. (Civil rights icon Rosa Parks was given a lying in honor tribute in Statuary Hall in 2005.) No Supreme Court justice has done the same since president-turned-chief justice William Howard Taft in 1930.
All week, babies in strollers, girls in pigtails and women in tears have been appearing at the court to mourn their legal heroine. They brought so many daisies, roses and sunflowers that huge swaths of sidewalks were barely visible. They dressed their dogs in lace collars. They left photos of themselves on their wedding days, wives kissing wives.
The posters they placed near the steps were designed with colorful declarations: “Rest in power”; “It’s up to us now”; “Little woman, big ovaries.” One poster bore a message to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) beside the phone number from the movie “Ghostbusters”: “For when she haunts you.”
In preparation for the official memorial, the tributes were cleared from the sidewalks, the petals swept away. After being screened by the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the grounds around the court, the memorabilia will be handed over to the Supreme Court’s curator.
Fences were erected in the evening, blocking the public from coming near the court. But women still came, stuffing flowers into the fence hinges.
“Right here’s a good spot,” said 5-year-old Annika Fjellstedt, as she placed a coloring book onto the sidewalk Tuesday night. The image featured Ginsburg, whom she’d dressed in a neon orange robe. The justice was riding on a unicorn, the reins in her hands.
Ginsburg’s near-mythical icon status was the subject of much debate in the week following her death, as the oodles of praise brought reminders of the decisions and comments that didn’t always align with the image of her as a hero to the left, including calling Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem “dumb” and “disrespectful.”
But the lines of mostly White people were focused Wednesday as much on the future as they were on the past.
“We are either going to have to stand up and fight as hard as she would, or we are going to see everything that we value and love fall,” said Brenda Siegel, 43, a single mother who drove in from Vermont, where she recently ran for lieutenant governor.
She knew that in just a few days, President Trump would announce a conservative nominee to replace Ginsburg. And she knew Democrats were almost certainly powerless to stop it.
If a woman is chosen to take Ginsburg’s seat, she would be among the legions of female attorneys for whom Ginsburg paved the way. Ginsburg, who had to justify why she’d taken a man’s spot at Harvard Law School and couldn’t find a job after she graduated, spent decades fighting for gender equality before becoming only the second woman to ascend to the nation’s highest court in 1993.
But those on the shortlist would play a vastly different role on the court than the liberal justice. A Trump nominee would give the court a 6-to-3 conservative majority capable of transforming the nation’s legal landscape and eroding some of the civil rights victories Ginsburg helped achieve, both in her time on the high court and as a pioneering lawyer.
“It’s unfortunate that this country had burdened her with so much,” said Robin Jones, 46, a university administrator from Blacksburg, Va., who stood in the third group in line before dawn.
Her longtime friend, Kelly Deutermann, 38, who had come along with her, said “it was nonnegotiable to be here.”
“She has provided the foundation for literally everything I can do in this country,” said Deutermann, who works as a Coast Guard officer. Her profession, she said, would have been out of reach if it hadn’t been for Ginsburg. Her husband, who has been the “primary parent” for their children for the past eight years, stayed home watching the kids.
“We wouldn’t have a world like that without RBG,” she said.
This was the lesson Judi LeCompte, 62, wanted to instill in her granddaughter Gianna as they watched the morning from the lawn of the Capitol. A day earlier, the 11-year-old said she didn’t know who Ginsburg was.
As they waited, LeCompte explained to her granddaughter how Ginsburg began her career at a time when wives were expected to take care of the children and cook for their husbands.
“Justice Ginsburg’s husband said, ‘No, you want to become a lawyer? Go become a lawyer,’” LeCompte told her granddaughter. “And he stood beside her every step of the way.”
While Gianna was learning about Ginsburg for the first time, 10-year-old Averie Hyde was near the front of the line to say goodbye to the justice. Her mother, 33-year-old Cathleen Hyde, booked their flights from Baton Rouge, La., the day after Ginsburg’s death, hoping there would be a memorial service in D.C. this week. Now they were wearing matching lace collar shirts. Averie, who was also wearing a rainbow LGBTQ pride hat, explained Ginsburg’s appeal simply.
“She was just cool,” Averie said.
After hours of waiting, some for the entire night, Averie and the other dedicated fans had only a minute or two to say goodbye to the justice at the court steps.
The college student who sneaked away to be here lowered her head. Her father, Doug Smith, took off his baseball cap.
Mary and Vicki Migues-Jordan each said a prayer.
“For her family to find peace, and for our country,” Mary said.
“I just wanted her to know that I was glad she wasn’t in pain anymore,” Vicki said.
They could hear the crowds growing larger behind them, still speaking in hushed tones. They looked up at the flag-covered casket. And after 13 hours at the Supreme Court, the women walked away, holding hands.
Ann Marimow contributed to this report.