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Capitol bids goodbye to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

First woman to lie in state at the Capitol

The casket of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is placed in Statuary Hall in the Capitol to lie in state in Washington on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020.
The casket of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is placed in Statuary Hall in the Capitol to lie in state in Washington on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

As the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday became the first woman to lie in state in the Capitol, it was fitting that most of the members of Congress gathered for her intimate arrival ceremony were women.

Later Friday, a larger group of mostly women lawmakers lined the steps of the Capitol for the departure of Ginsburg’s casket. As the hearse pulled away from the Capitol, those present waved goodbye. Ginsburg died Sept. 18 after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

While Ginsburg is the first woman to lie in state, a distinction reserved for government officials, the first woman whose casket lay in the Capitol was civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who in 2005 lay in honor, a distinction reserved for a select few private citizens.

The arrival ceremony was short and solemn, although a brief moment of levity occurred afterward as guests paused by Ginsburg’s casket to pay their respects on their way out and the justice’s trainer Bryant Johnson dropped to the floor and did three pushups.

Less than half an hour elapsed from the time Ginsburg’s casket was escorted into Statutory Hall promptly at the 10 a.m. start time and when the Sergeant-of-Arms staff started escorting guests out.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave brief introductory remarks at the top of the ceremony but neither she nor any other members gave a formal speech about Ginsburg’s life. Pelosi has told stories about Ginsburg in several media appearances throughout the week.

The only person to speak about Ginsburg at Friday’s ceremony was Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who talked about how she rose to prominence on the Supreme Court through a variety of challenges, including loss of family members in her youth, inability as a woman to get hired at a law firm after college and later five bouts of cancer.

“Even as her views did not prevail, she fought,” Holtzblatt said, noting Ginsburg became known for her dissenting opinions and her view that they would be “blueprints for the future” that can one day shape majority views.

Lawmakers were still and stoic through most of the ceremony, including two musical numbers by opera singer Denyce Graves, who was accompanied by Laura Ward on the piano. But after Graves concluded her second song hitting impressive high notes, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Katherine M. Clark placed her hand over her heart and shared a look with Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who did the same.

The ceremony guests were limited in part because of the small size of Statuary Hall and in part because chairs were spaced apart for social distancing as a coronavirus precaution.

Members of Congress, about 40 in total, sat to the right of the lectern — along with former California Democratic Rep. Jane Harman — while Ginsburg’s family and other guests sat to the left, including Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his wife Jill. Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, was also present but she sat among the lawmakers.

Biden told reporters after departing the ceremony that he first met Ginsburg during her confirmation process. He was the Senate Judiciary chairman at the time she was confirmed in 1993. “Wonderful memories,” he said.  

Ginsburg was confirmed to the high court on a 96-3 vote, but her replacement is expected to face a largely party-line vote. President Donald Trump plans to announce his nominee Saturday at 5 p.m., saying he wanted to wait until after the various ceremonies honoring Ginsburg. She is is scheduled to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday, after Yom Kippur.

Ginsburg lay in repose at the Supreme Court Wednesday and Thursday and Trump stopped by briefly on the second day to pay his respects.

At the Capitol on Friday there were few Republicans who did the same. Hosting the ceremony in Statutory Hall on the House side of the Capitol allowed Pelosi to arrange Ginsburg lying in state without approval from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Joint approval is required for use of the larger Capitol Rotunda.

Neither McConnell nor House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., attended the ceremony. Republicans present were House Minority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and retiring Indiana Rep. Susan W. Brooks, one of only 13 House GOP women.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, per her office, was invited to today’s ceremony, but had a conflict with previously scheduled events in Maine, so she paid her respects on Wednesday at the Supreme Court, according to the pool.

Other Republicans stopped by to pay their respects after the ceremony, including more of the few House GOP women — Elise Stefanik of New York, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington and Martha Roby of Alabama.

Ginsburg was Jewish but many Catholics who paid their respects on Friday made the sign of the cross, including Biden, Pelosi and Scalise.

After the arrival ceremony ended, other members of Congress and staff were allowed to pay their respects. The plan was to have a group of women lawmakers come through first but Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent, came in before.

Pelosi returned to Statuary Hall and appeared to be confused to see King standing by Ginsburg’s casket. But after a brief chat with an aide and then King, she ushered the group of women in.

A few of the women posed for pictures in front of Ginsburg’s casket, including Democratic Reps. Shelia Jackson Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas and Barbara Lee of California.

After the women House members paid their respects, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., was next to walk up to the casket. He was followed by a group of male House members.

Most House members came through to pay their respects in assigned groups meant to facilitate social distancing, like the chamber has been doing for votes given its large size. Senators, however, came through sporadically. 

Friday may not be the last time Ginsburg is honored at the Capitol if Democrats have their way. On Thursday a group of Democratic women in the House and Senate, with some male co-signers, introduced legislation to begin the process of creating a monument at the Capitol for Ginsburg.

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