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A spontaneous Supreme Court vigil celebrated Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life and legacy

Hundreds of people gathered on the building’s steps Friday night.

The crowd at the Supreme Court mourning Ruth Bader Ginsburg after her death at 87 included men and women of all ages.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The Supreme Court was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s workplace and her battleground.

It was where, while working as a lawyer in the 1970s, she argued six cases and won five, setting precedents that established women’s equality before the law. It was where she issued her memorable dissents during her 27-year tenure.

And on Friday night, after Ginsburg died at the age of 87, it was where at least 1,000 people gathered to mourn the Supreme Court’s second female justice and to celebrate her legacy.

A woman in a mask places flowers on the Supreme Court steps, which are covered with bouquets. She, and the mourners next to her, are lit by candles that have been set amid the flowers.
A mourner places a tribute in front of the Supreme Court to honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Friday night at the age of 87.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The crowd, which the Washington Post reported included people of all ages, brought candles, signs, and flowers; they sang songs (“This Land Is Your Land”); they wore masks. Some waved LGBTQ pride flags.

Some of the mourners at the Supreme Court on Friday night carried candles to mark Ginsburg’s death.
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

It was an unusual outpouring of grief for a Supreme Court justice, but Ginsburg occupied an unusual place in American culture — she was not just a hero to many liberal women (and men) for her place in history and her work on the Supreme Court bench, but something of a meme.

She was, in the words of the moniker bestowed on her by Shana Knizhnik, the “Notorious RBG.” (Knizhnik, then a law student, came up with the nickname after Ginsburg read her dissent aloud in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that gutted the Voting Rights Act; it was later the title of a Ginsburg biography co-written by Knizhnik and journalist Irin Carmon.)

Post-it note that says “Notorious Thank You” placed on a brick wall. Out of focus mourners attend to a shrine beneath the note, bright circles of candles light illuminating them.
Tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, like this one in front of a mural in Washington, DC, referenced her pop culture alter ego, the “Notorious RBG.”
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Her face was featured on mugs, magnets, and dishtowels, and her life story was chronicled in a documentary and a feature film. Coronavirus prevention signs in Washington, DC’s Adams Morgan neighborhood pleaded with residents to wear a mask “for RBG.”

“In an era when too many American leaders treat human lives as abstractions, the fandom, even at its cheekiest, insisted on the Court’s humanity,” wrote the Atlantic’s Megan Garber. “The personal is political; the memes, like the person they celebrate, insisted that the personal is also judicial.”

For Ginsburg’s mourners, her death could not have come at a worse time: in the seventh month of a pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 Americans, and less than two months before an election that will decide the fate of a presidency she hoped to outlast. She often said that she hoped the president “after this one” would be a “fine president,” according to her New York Times obituary. Her dying wish, as told to her granddaughter, was that “I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

One mourner Friday night carried a sign that said “Honor Her Wish.”

Mourner at the Supreme Court carries a sign saying “Honor Her Wish” on a white posterboard in bold black letters. The mourner is surrounded by a dense, but masked, crowd on the Supreme Court’s steps.
A group of masked mourners, some carrying signs, gathers on the steps of the Supreme Court in the hours after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. The sign referenced Ginsburg’s dying wish: that she not be replaced on the Court until a new president has taken office.
Alex Brandon/AP

Another homemade sign read “when there are nine,” a reference to how Ginsburg answered frequent questions about when there would be “enough” women on the Supreme Court.

Woman wearing mask and 2020 T-shirt holds white sign saying “When There Are Nine” in pink marker. Her head is in her hands, and it appears as if she may be crying. She sits on the curb in front of the Court, a loose crowd visible behind her.
Some mourners at the Supreme Court honored Ginsburg’s famous quotes, including her quip about when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court: “When there are nine.”
Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

The mourners who converged on the Supreme Court Friday night came to honor Ginsburg’s legal legacy, to mourn a personal hero, and — some said — because they simply did not want to be alone in the aftermath of the news.

“The question that keeps popping up in my head is, ‘Who is going to take care of us?’” one woman told the Washington Post. “It just feels like such a deep loss at this particular time. It’s a lot to put on a woman of her age to keep us safe and functioning as a constitutional democracy.”