A wisp of a woman but a giant in American law passed from this life last week, at once evoking a vast outpouring of appreciation for her life's work and triggering political tumult over the vacancy she left on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, died Friday in one last battle with cancer.
Hers was a remarkable life. She excelled as a student, but in 1959 no law firm would hire this woman who graduated at the top of her law school class. Ginsburg instead clerked for a federal judge in Manhattan, then pursued the law as a researcher and on faculty at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she was one of the first women to teach at any American law school.
By the 1970s, she was taking sex discrimination cases and building a reputation as a legal trailblazer for equal rights for men and women. President Jimmy Carter appointed her in 1980 to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until President Bill Clinton tapped her in 1993 as only the second woman in U.S. history to sit on the Supreme Court.
As the high court became increasingly conservative, she was known for her passionate dissents in numerous cases and picked up the moniker, "the Notorious RBG," which helped make the octogenarian a pop culture icon.
Justice Ginsberg's "most fervent wish" was that she not be replaced until a new president is installed.
It is precisely the timing of her replacement that has suddenly become the dominant issue not just in the 2020 presidential contest but also in U.S. Senate races, any of which could be impacted by how the senators' respective constituencies view their performance on this one question.
Other issues will resurface but this one's effect on the future makeup of the Supreme Court will drive many determined voters to the polls.
The way President Donald Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and most other Republican senators frame the issue is that they're merely acting as the party in power to exercise a constitutional right to choose the next Supreme Court member.
Never mind that Americans are already voting in an election that is barely more than 40 days away.
And never mind that these same Republicans in 2016 refused to consider then-President Barack Obama's nominee to a Supreme Court vacancy created when another justice died unexpectedly.
Why wouldn't they? It was a presidential election year. The senators and would-be president said then that the people of this country should have a say in who would appoint the next justice.
You must have seen the clips of their declarations back then. They were doing what was "right." They're choking on those words now as President Trump quickly screens possible appointees, expecting to name Justice Ginsburg's replacement before the week is out and angling for a Senate confirmation vote before the Nov. 3election.
That's really the only timing that would guarantee Trump could name a third person to the nation's highest court.
Were he to lose the presidency, the Republican majority in the Senate could still choose to confirm a Trump nominee in that lame-duck span between the election and the Jan. 20 inauguration of a new President Joe Biden.
But senators who ignored that result in this ongoing election could be sacrificing their own political futures to gain a Supreme Court loaded with relatively young, conservative justices and a 6-3 majority over their liberal counterparts.
Of course, if Trump were to win re-election, he and the Republicans could assert that they retained power precisely because American voters want that mix on the Supreme Court. A confirmation vote after the Nov. 3 election would be easy.
That's also why it makes much more sense for the Senate to put off confirmation of a Trump nominee until after the Nov. 3 vote.
Never has the phrase "elections have consequences" been more apt.
In the hours and days after Justice Ginsburg's death, millions upon millions of dollars have poured in to influence the outcome both for Democratic and Republican candidates, including Trump and Biden.
The people sending the money, whether individuals or corporations and whatever their alliances, want to influence the outcome of the vote.
They intend to "flip the Senate" for a Democratic majority or hold the Republican majority there. They expect to elect Biden or re-elect Trump.
Millions and millions more Americans, whether or not they contributed a nickel to any of the candidates, will actually decide the winners and losers.
Who will go vote? Who won't?
Elections have consequences, some more than others.
Voters' choices this year will ultimately guide the future of this nation, which certainly feels like it is hanging on a political precipice.