The Atlanta Lawyer August/September 2020 Vol. 19, No. 2 | Page 5

Cousin Ruthie : A Personal Reflection

HON . DIANE BESSEN State Court of Fulton County Diane . Bessen @ fultoncountyga . gov
In my house , Justice Ginsburg was affectionately called “ Cousin Ruthie .” She was my father ’ s second cousin . I didn ’ t know her well , but did have the opportunity to meet her on a few occasions , but I will get to that shortly .
Back in the earlier part of the 20th Century , immigrant families were particularly close . So even though by today ’ s standards , a second cousin is a somewhat distant relative , back in the 1930 ’ s , extended families lived close to one another and spent an enormous amount of time together . In my father ’ s case , that meant summers at the beach in Far Rockaway , NY . My father would talk about how smart & petite “ Kiki ” was ; her childhood nickname which wasn ’ t more publicly know until the recent documentaries & biographies .
Shortly after my father passed away , I wrote the Justice asking if my family could visit her during our trip to Washington D . C . She wrote back with a letter that hangs framed in my chambers . It was a warm response and she indicated she was going to be speaking at an event in Atlanta in a few months and arranged for me and my husband to attend . We arrived at the event and waited in the very long receiving line , for an opportunity to meet the Justice . When we finally got to speak to her and shake her black-laced gloved hands , she welcomed me with an excitement that took me by surprise . It was soon obvious how meaningful it was for her to make a connection with a distant family member . It was as if my presence broke through all the formalities , she endured at all these events . It was a surreal moment particularly because the constantly moving receiving line had come to an abrupt halt and people were staring , wondering who we were , and why Justice Ginsburg was speaking to us for so long .
She spoke of my father and his siblings , the summers they spent together at the beach , and how even though her own family had been in the furrier business , none compared with those made by my grandfather , Bessen Brothers . I didn ’ t think it was appropriate to tell her that my father died , still begrudging the day she “ stole ” his beach chair – that should have been a sign to everyone not to be fooled by her petite stature .
A few months later we were able to visit with Justice Ginsburg in Washington . She arranged for us to sit in the front row to listen to the reading of two important decisions : Virginia v . Black 1 which struck down a Virginia law related to cross burning and State Farm Mut . Automobile Ins . Co . v . Campbell , 2 which set limits on punitive damages . That experience for those who have not yet witnessed our highest court in action , is not to be missed .
Afterwards we were fortunate to visit with the Justice in her chambers for quite some time and even met her good friend who sauntered by , Justice Scalia . We discussed the recent opinions and family connections .
My children were very young at the time and to this day , are angry that their memory of that wonderful day is so faded .
I join with the rest of our country in mourning Justice Ginsburg ’ s passing and the tremendous loss to our country of her insight , legal acumen , and tireless efforts on behalf of women ’ s equality . I fear for the turmoil that awaits us and wonder how we will move forward . And I am also grateful – grateful that I live in a country where a child of immigrants , from modest means , could rise to such great heights . Of that my father was deeply proud . I am grateful I had the opportunity to meet my Cousin Ruthie and reminisce about our family ties . I will cherish those memories forever . __________________________________
Virginia v . Black , 538 U . S . 343 ( 2003 )
State Farm Mut . Automobile Ins . Co . v . Campbell , 538 U . S . 408 ( 2003 )
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