Cross Country Checkup·Q&A

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy 'will go on' despite Supreme Court shift: Beverley McLachlin

Former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Beverley McLachlin believes that despite an ongoing political battle over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy of fighting for "the cause of equality" will endure.

'The thing that impressed me so much was her absolute devotion to the cause of equality,' she told Checkup

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, launching a push by Republicans to fill her seat in the U.S. Supreme Court. (Jacquelyn Martin/The Associated Press)

Former Supreme Court of Canada chief justice Beverley McLachlin believes that despite an ongoing political battle over the future of the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy of fighting for "the cause of equality" will endure.

McLachlin, who became the Supreme Court of Canada's first woman chief justice in 2000 and retired in 2017, had both a professional and personal relationship with the late Ginsburg, who died on Sept. 18 of complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer.

In the week since Ginsburg's death, a political clash over who will fill Ginsburg's seat in the United States' top court has ensued with Republican senators promising to vote in favour of U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee before the November election.

On Saturday, Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett, a staunch conservative, to the bench.

As part of Cross Country Checkup's Ask Me Anything series, McLachlin told host Ian Hanomansing that Ginsburg's example as a Supreme Court judge "will always resonate with us."

Here is part of that conversation.

I was reading your memoir [over] the last three days and right on, I think page two, there's a reference to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which of course is uncanny given what's happening there ... You clearly knew her. How did you meet?

The first time we met, I think, was at a legal lecture series at Cambridge University in England, and she had come to give a lecture. 

Afterward, I think she asked to have tea with me and a few other people, and I recall meeting her in a beautiful garden, as they are, in one of the colleges at Cambridge.

So you had a professional connection, obviously, and you talk in your memoir about her coming to Canada and asking about the legal history regarding how women are treated in Canada. But beyond that professional connection, did you have a friendship?

I wouldn't call myself a close friend, but we saw each other quite frequently after I became chief justice. We established an exchange with the United States Supreme Court and every three years, we'd visit each other. 

There were always frank discussions, and social events, and I also saw her at a number of other legal events that took place in the United States. And so over the years, I felt I got to know her quite well.

Beverley McLachlin discusses her relationship with Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her memoir, Truth Be Told: My Journey Through Life and the Law. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

So you, I'm sure, have seen and read much of the coverage of her over the last few days. But give us an insight into her that maybe only another Supreme Court justice — and another female Supreme Court justice — might have of her.

The thing that impressed me so much was her absolute devotion to the cause of equality for particularly women — because most of her early cases and so on focused on women's rights — but for everyone. Those who are disadvantaged and less fortunate as well as as women. 

She had this very quiet passion which she combined with great intellectual strength and rigour, and she had a way of just putting a question that would get you immediately to the heart of the problem or making a comment that would get you right to the heart of the problem. 

She loved fun. She had a good sense of humour, and loved the opera and many other things as comes out in some of the films that were made about her. 

But she was really serious about what she was serious about, and that commitment came through to me very, very clearly.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy and the impact of her death


2 months agoVideo
CBC Washington correspondent Keith Boag and lawyer Marie Henein talk about the mark Ruth Bader Ginsburg has left on the world and what could happen with her vacancy in the United States Supreme Court. 6:28

I think back to Friday, just over a week ago, when the news of her passing became public and how sad people were ... but now in the United States so much focus is going to turn to who replaces her and how the decision is made to replace her. 

Watching that, from your perspective as a former chief justice of the Canadian Supreme Court, what do you make of that whole debate and process and what we've seen over the last few days?

It is the process, and it doesn't surprise me given the political situation now in United States that this would be happening. I believe, however, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg's legacy will go on. 

Perhaps I'm an optimist, maybe I'm naive, but I don't think that the basic idea that everyone should be treated basically equally — that people shouldn't be lessened or have their opportunities narrowed because of their gender or their race or whatever personal characteristic it may fasten on — I don't believe that these are ideas that will go out of style in the long, long run. And the issues that she fought for will continue to be fought for. 

I know that we may be entering a different era now, but ... the pendulum swings and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's example, what she was able to accomplish through the words she used both as an advocate and later as a judge, will always resonate with us.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Steve Howard. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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