Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death has left many of us reeling.

Through her 27 years on the nation’s highest court and 87 years on this earth, Justice Ginsburg broke barriers, set precedents and earned a lasting place in legal, political and cultural history. She became, quite simply, notorious.

The enormity of this loss makes focusing on the specific elements of RBG’s legacy overwhelming. Do I, as a lawyer, most mourn her sharp mind and eloquent dissents? In the midst of a pandemic, does her defense of the Affordable Care Act rise to the top? Or will I forever laud her lifelong fight for gender equality and voting rights? Justice Ginsburg’s voice will be missed in these areas and more because her work – her life – was guided by her conviction that “one lives not just for oneself but for one’s community.”

Her commitment to our communal well-being is perhaps most apparent in Justice Ginsburg’s environmental legacy. In decision after decision, she affirmed the federal government’s responsibility to protect clean air, clean water and a livable climate for us all.

• In the Supreme Court’s first-ever ruling on climate change, 2007’s Massachusetts v. EPA, Ginsburg joined the majority decision that carbon pollution and other climate pollutants are covered by the Clean Air Act, and that the Environmental Protection Agency was charged with regulating these pollutants to protect public health.

• Four years later, RBG authored the unanimous decision in American Electric Power v. Connecticut, confirming federal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

• She also wrote the 2014 majority opinion upholding the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the “Good Neighbor” provision of the Clean Air Act.

RGB modeled many ways to be a good neighbor. In the 2014 case, she reasoned that the EPA’s obligation to ensure that every state meets the National Ambient Air Quality Standard requires it to regulate emissions that drift across state lines and degrade air quality in downwind states. In other words, what happens upwind doesn’t stay there – and that’s not OK. The EPA must regulate pollutants, whether they originate within an affected state or are carried there on prevailing winds.

This ruling is personal for Maine: As “the tailpipe of the nation,” we are one of those downwind, affected states. Because the pollution we contend with isn’t emitted within our boundaries, no amount of state action can reduce it. We rely on having good neighbors – and good Supreme Court justices.

Throughout her career, Justice Ginsburg worked to advance the steady growth of environmental and public health protections and an emerging body of case law supporting federal climate action. With the West on fire, a record-setting hurricane season underway and an extreme drought here in Maine, there is no doubt that the need for coordinated action is urgent. The Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks have been so unrelenting that RGB’s vision and adherence to the rule of law might seem impossibly optimistic. It is not.

RBG was a fierce advocate, a brilliant justice and an extraordinary icon – but she was not more than we deserve. American people deserve a Supreme Court justice who evaluates each case with consideration, conviction and compassion. We deserve federal judges who display sound legal reasoning and understand the long-term impacts of their rulings. We deserve jurists on every federal bench who believe in the science of climate change and who are committed to upholding the environmental protections enshrined in law and essential to a healthy future, in Maine and throughout the nation.

This is not a partisan wish-list. It is the definition of a qualified federal judge, and those who do not meet the bar should not be nominated or confirmed.

As Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s casket lay in repose at the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that her 483 majority, concurring and dissenting opinions “will steer the court for decades.” That is good and right, but it is not enough. May her commitment to strong communities, sound science and equitably policies steer the court, and our country, as well. May her memory be a blessing. And may her successor on the court be qualified.


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