Thousands honor Justice Ginsburg at Supreme Court

A flag-draped casket is carried into a building.
The flag-draped casket of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., Wednesday.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds | AFP via Getty Images

Updated: 10:21 a.m.

Chief Justice John Roberts says the words that best describe the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are “tough, brave, a fighter, a winner” but also "thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest.”

Roberts spoke Wednesday during a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court. After the ceremony, Ginsburg's flag-draped casket was placed at the top of the court’s front steps so that the public can pay their respects to the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court in line with public health guidance for the coronavirus pandemic.

Thousands of people are expected to pay their respects throughout the day to the women's rights champion, leader of the court's liberal bloc and feminist icon who died last week at 87.

“Her voice in court and in our conference room was soft, but when she spoke people listened,” Roberts said

Ginsburg’s flag-draped casket arrived at the court at 9:30 a.m. and was carried into the court’s Great Hall, past her former law clerks who lined the steps.

Inside, the court’s remaining eight justices, all of them wearing masks, were together for the first time since the building was closed in March and they resorted to meetings by telephone. Because of the pandemic, however, chairs for the justices were spaced apart.

Signs and flowers at a makeshift memorial for the late Justice Ginsburg.
Signs and flowers are left at a makeshift memorial in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Monday in Washington, D.C
Alex Wong | Getty Images file

Ginsburg will lie in repose for two days at the court where she served for 27 years and, before that, argued six cases for gender equality in the 1970s. Ginsburg’s casket will be on public view from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

Nearly 500 members of the public had gathered to pay their respects Wednesday morning.

At the front of the crowd were attorneys Cara Stewart and Jenny Beene-Skuban, who drove overnight from the Cincinnati area to be there.

“I felt like I couldn’t not be here,” said Stewart, a public-interest lawyer from Martin, Ky.

Stewart said she particularly identified with Ginsburg’s early career as a civil rights advocate.

“What moves me more is her career before the court,” she said. “Using the courts for justice and being successful — that’s not easy to do.”

Beene-Skuban, of Cincinnati, said Ginsburg’s career blazed trails for women who came after her.

“We’re here to recognize the shoulders we’re standing on,” she said.

Outside the building, chairs and monitors were set up.

A woman waves a flag outside the Supreme Court
A woman waves a "Notorious R.B.G." flag outside the U.S. Supreme Court at a makeshift memorial for late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Sept. 21, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Alex Edelman | AFP via Getty Images

Following a private ceremony Wednesday in the court’s Great Hall, her casket will be moved outside the building to the top of the court's front steps so that public mourners can pay their respects in line with public health guidance for the pandemic.

Since her death Friday evening, people have been leaving flowers, notes, placards and all manner of Ginsburg paraphernalia outside the court in tribute to the woman who became known in her final years as the “Notorious RBG.” Court workers cleared away the items and cleaned the court plaza and sidewalk in advance of Wednesday's ceremony.

Inside, the entrance to the courtroom, along with Ginsburg's chair and place on the bench next to Roberts, have been draped in black, a longstanding court custom. These visual signs of mourning, which in years past have reinforced the sense of loss, will largely go unseen this year. The court begins its new term Oct. 5, but the justices will not be in the courtroom and instead will hear arguments by phone.

It’s unclear whether President Donald Trump would visit the court before he leaves town Wednesday afternoon, though he did pay respects when Justice John Paul Stevens died last year and President Barack Obama visited the court after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016.

After the private ceremony inside the court, Ginsburg's casket will be on public view from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday.

Heather Setzler, a physician’s assistant from Raleigh, North Carolina, started her drive at 1 a.m. to be at the court.

Setzler said on annual trips to Washington she always set aside an hour or so to tour the Supreme Court and hang out in the cafeteria, hoping for an impromptu chance to meet.

She appreciated not only the serious legacy she left behind but was also a fan of the pop culture phenomenon that surrounded the Notorious RBG, naming her two cats Hillary Ruth and Kiki, in honor of Ginsburg’s childhood nickname.

“There was just something about her. She was so diminutive yet turned out to be such a giant,” Setzler said, wearing a face mask adorned with small portraits of Ginsburg.

Setzler said she’s frightened by the prospect that Ginsburg’s replacement could lock the court into a solid conservative majority.

“It pains me to think that everything she worked so hard for could be turned around in a couple of years,” she said.

On Friday, Ginsburg will lie in state at the Capitol, the first woman to do so and only the second Supreme Court justice after William Howard Taft. Taft had also been president. Rosa Parks, a private citizen as opposed to a government official, is the only woman who has lain in honor at the Capitol.

Ginsburg will be buried beside her husband, Martin, in a private ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery next week. Martin Ginsburg died in 2010. She is survived by a son and a daughter, four grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Ginsburg's death from cancer at age 87 has added another layer of tumult to an already chaotic election year. Trump and Senate Republicans are plowing ahead with plans to have a new justice on the bench, perhaps before the Nov. 3 election.

A girl and her mom at a makeshift memorial.
Five-year-old Abby Martin of Arlington, Va., pays respect with her mother Jackie Martin as they visit a makeshift memorial in front of the U.S. Supreme Court for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Monday in Washington, D.C.
Alex Wong | Getty Images

Only Chief Justice Roger Taney, who died in October 1864, died closer to a presidential election. Lincoln waited until December to nominate his replacement, Salmon Chase, who was confirmed the same day.

When Scalia, Ginsburg's closest friend on the court, died unexpectedly in 2016, Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama's high-court nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.

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