Who can replace RBG?

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By Debra Adams Simmons, HISTORY Executive Editor

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Say her name.

Few legacies in the history of American jurisprudence are deserving of more reverence or of a nation’s tribute than that of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg, who died Friday at age 87. The second woman ever appointed to a seat on the nation’s high court, Ginsburg didn’t just break glass ceilings; she was the Hope Diamond that shattered them.

A pioneering feminist, towering intellect, and unlikely cultural rock star, Ginsburg will long be remembered as a relentless champion of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. She made it her mission to navigate the court—and America—into a clearer understanding of legal equal protection and how the concept applied not only to racial and ethnic minorities but also to women.

Seeking common ground was crucial to Ginsburg, even as a 13-year-old in a world emerging from the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust. In an essay in her temple bulletin entitled “One People,” she wrote that America must never fall into the division that destroyed Germany. “For righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions,” she wrote.

Seventy-four years later, upon her death, a divided nation faces twin challenges to its future in replacing the justice and in electing a president in November.

But how or should the nation replace a justice in the weeks before an election? And, if a Supreme Court choice is rammed through despite the will of most of the people, should the court be enlarged to respect the people’s wishes?

In two stories, Nat Geo’s Amy McKeever examines precedent for election-year judicial appointments and the supposed “sanctity” of the size of the high court, which has stood at nine members for a century and a half.

In both cases, there are challenges to conventional wisdom. Presidents have appointed justices without Senate approval in the past. The size of the court ping-ponged in its first decades, from six to as little as five to as many as 10, before settling at nine. One president wanted to make it 15.

As with so much about American democracy or democracies worldwide, we are discovering there are fewer or weaker guardrails to the pure exercise of power. To some, Ginsburg’s words as a teen, and her dissents in later life, had a through-line to a more idealized nation; to others, she represented an unwelcome path to inclusion, or an obstacle to attempts to outlaw abortion.

Both conservatives and liberals, however, agreed on her focus and impact upon the nation.

From three quarters of a century ago, Ginsburg urged Americans to use their brains and not their emotions in choosing the way of what she called our beloved land. “Prejudice,” the 13-year-old Ginsburg wrote, “saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking."

(Pictured above, Ginsburg sits at right in artist Nelson Shanks’ painting “The Four Justices.” It also portrays, from left, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Sandra Day O’Connor. It hangs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington.)

Today in a minute

Death in the jungle: He spent his life defending Brazil’s isolated tribes. Mistaken for an intruder by one of those tribes, Rieli Franciscoto (above, at right) was killed last week in an arrow attack. Experts tell Nat Geo that the nomads, under increasing threat, would have had little chance to distinguish friend from foe.

Awarded: It was a documentary about a brave group of doctors who treated patients underground as Syria’s Russian-backed dictator used bombs and poison gas to kill his own people. Last night, National Geographic’s The Cave took Emmy awards for exceptional merit in documentary filmmaking and cinematography. Here’s our story from February on hospital director Dr. Amani Ballour, who has fled her homeland.

Early fire management: Archaeologists have reached back nearly nine decades to find evidence that early Americans practiced controlled burns to limit brush that could cause wildfires in the West. Atlas Obscura reports on efforts around a northern New Mexico village, Wabakwa, to keep fire at bay. Fire management, new settlement, a tree-eating beetle, and a changing climate have been cited for a rise of charred land in the West over the past few years.

The one that went south: Everybody knows about the Underground Railroad that ferried enslaved people to freedom in the northern United States and Canada. But did you know about the route to Mexico? Scholars are piecing together the largely forgotten network that helped thousands of enslaved Black people escape, the AP’s Russell Contreras writes. “It’s larger than most people realized,” says Karl Jacoby, of Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race.

Overheard at Nat Geo

That was then: Tucked in among ferns and spongy beds of moss, this sculpture (above) might not look like a dinosaur to you. But 166 years ago, this statue represented the bleeding edge of paleontology—and helped kickstart dinomania.

Crafted by British artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, this sculpture of Megalosaurus was one of four depicting dinosaurs. My colleague Michael Greshko says the sculptures were a smash hit at their 1854 unveiling and transformed dinosaurs into pop-culture icons. More than a century before Steven Spielberg dazzled the world with Jurassic Park, the Crystal Palace dinosaurs drew two million visitors a year.

Charles Dickens even name-dropped Megalosaurus in Bleak House,” writes Greshko, author of our latest magazine cover, on reimagining dinosaurs.

Their scientific study dates back only to the early 19th century, but our cultural awareness stretches back much further. Historian Adrienne Mayor argues that the Asian dinosaur Proceratops may have inspired myths of the griffin. And fossilized dinosaur tracks have long played a sacred role for northwestern Australia’s Indigenous Goolarabooloo.

Now more than ever, science is letting us see how these remarkable creatures looked and behaved. In another 166 years, will our depictions of these ancient beasts look as outdated as the Crystal Palace dinosaurs? Surprises surely await us.

The big takeaway

Sorry, supremacists: Were Vikings raiders uniformly blond, bearded, barrel-chested, racially “pure” dudes, as Nazis and their thuggish successors have stated? Nope. Recent DNA testing shows Vikings were strikingly diverse and multicultural, Erin Blakemore reports. The latest study, by Nature, brings together genetic data from 442 humans whose remains date from around 2400 B.C. to A.D. 1600. The ancient individuals, for instance, had on average darker hair and eyes than a randomly selected group of modern Danes.

In a few words

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Last glimpse

Decanted: Archeologists in southern Lebanon have unearthed a 2,600-year-old winepress, the oldest reported discovered in the nation. The find adds to evidence of the extensive overseas trade in wine by the ancient Phoenicians, credited with popularizing the beverage throughout the Mediterranean, and sheds light on the process the seafaring merchants used to produce it. Feet treaded grapes in a durable plaster basin that could hold about 1,200 gallons of raw juice, Tom Metcalfe reports for Nat Geo. (Above, an artist’s reconstruction of the winepress.)

This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse has selected the photos. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . Thanks for reading, and happy trails.

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