OPINION: We need to reimagine the Supreme Court to save ourselves

A woman with glasses smiles off camera.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon, died on Sept. 18, 2020. (Courtesy: John Mathew Smith from Wikimedia Commons)

I am not here to tell anyone how they should feel about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. She can be mourned, criticized or regarded in any way. RBG’s history as a judge has been both celebrated and denounced in recent days, and these conversations are necessary. However, we need to understand her work as within a broken judicial system. It is time we changed the Supreme Court.

RBG was known to many as a feminist icon, having led many legal battles in the 1970s for women’s rights and having grown in popularity among younger people since 2015. Her work must be considered reformist, as she worked within patriarchal institutions to incite change rather than taking power out of them to build new institutions that are feminist at their core. 

In “Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics,” bell hooks explains this differentiation between reformist feminism and revolutionary feminism: “Reformist feminist thinking focusing primarily on equality with men in the workforce overshadowed the original radical foundations of contemporary feminism which called for reform as well as overall restructuring of society so that our nation would be fundamentally anti-sexist.”

We can build upon RBG’s work. She changed the lives of many, pushing against and stripping away power from the patriarchy within the legal system. But it’s our job to go further. It’s our job to be revolutionary in our feminism and beyond. And that means restructuring the system RBG worked within.

If anything, this moment of uncertainty in the state of the Supreme Court due to RBG’s death should reveal the failures of the workings of the court to those who were not already aware. This uncertainty is not a mere reflection of one administration, but of a system that is flawed in concept and practice.

The nine justices that sit on the Supreme Court are tasked with interpreting the Constitution to rule on specific cases that will then affect the lives of everyone in the U.S. These decisions do not concern what is right and wrong, but their interpretations of this old document depend heavily on each justice’s ethics. This is clearly defined in the written role of the Supreme Court.

“As the final arbiter of the law, the Court… functions as guardian and interpreter of the Constitution,” according to the official website for the Supreme Court of the U.S.

The responsibility of the Supreme Court is massive, and with the potential to take grassroots movements and place them into law also comes the ability to do terrible harm. Take Buck v. Bell, Dred Scott v. Sanford or Bowers v. Hardwick as examples.

Since RBG’s passing, I have been frustrated with why we fail to question why the Supreme Court is set up this way. It is illogical to have nine people determine the fate of over 328 million. It is illogical to have almost no checks and balances on those nine people, especially once they are confirmed to the Court. It is illogical for those nine people to be nominated by one person instead of being voted in directly by the public when they are given so much power over the entire country.

The Supreme Court is not just starting to fall apart. It has been failing many since its very inception. The reliance on nine people to uphold the rights of many is in and of itself a failure of the judicial system.

We can’t just vote our way out of this and assume the president we elect will have any interest in restructuring a system that will diminish their own position’s power. Voting is important, but this moment calls for something larger. The solution is not to find another justice to rely on fighting for our rights while the powerful continue stripping them away.

We need laws that uphold our rights so that the rulings of nine justices have less weight. We need to expand the number of justices serving on the Supreme Court. We need checks and balances on them. We need term limits and a voting system in place so that the justices serving start to reflect the population better. 

We can’t rely on the way things have been done to solve the problems we have been facing for centuries. We need revolutionary reimagination because we cannot wait. That requires organizing and changing the way we think of ourselves in relation to the people around us and in systems of power. 

Aarushi Phalke PO ’24 is from Portland, Oregon. Her current goal is to one day make a perfect bowl of noodles.

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