Opinion: Ex-RBG law clerk: My two favorite stories about Ginsburg

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Like most of Ginsburg’s law clerks, I relished the experience, admiring her legal brilliance, learning from her exemplary writing skills, and both respecting and liking her as a person. But as any of us would tell you, Ginsburg — extraordinary as she was — was not an ordinary, down-to-earth sort of person. Conversations with her could be awkward because she always thought carefully before speaking, did not waste words, and declined to engage in small talk.

Thus, conversations with her often featured long pauses, while you tried to figure out if she was finished speaking and it was now your turn, or she was still formulating her thoughts. You certainly did not want to interrupt her in mid-thought.

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I have two favorite stories about Ginsburg from my clerkship that I like to share with my students. I’ll recount the first of them up here. Both have to do with sports — an obsession of mine that the Justice did not share. Soon after her appointment to the DC Circuit, the Washington football team won the Super Bowl, and there was a celebratory parade down Constitution Avenue, which runs right beside the courthouse. Ginsburg asked her secretary what the noise was about. “Why, judge, that’s the Super Bowl parade,” her secretary replied. To which Ginsburg responded, “What’s the Super Bowl?”

Ginsburg was the leading women’s rights lawyer of the 1970s, the decade when the Supreme Court first recognized that the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed sex equality. When President Clinton nominated her to the high court, he rightly compared her contributions to women’s rights to those of the great NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall to civil rights.

Ginsburg’s life encapsulated what the professional world was like for women 60 years ago and how much it has changed since then. When she entered Harvard Law School in 1956, she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500.

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Women were not permitted to live in law school dormitories or to dine in the faculty club. The Law Review banquet welcomed members’ fathers but not their wives or mothers. Early in the school year, Dean Ervin Griswold invited the nine women to his house for dinner, at which he asked them why they wanted to be at Harvard, occupying the space of a man who presumably could have put his legal education to better use. Unprepared for the question, Ginsburg said something to the effect that it was important for a woman to be informed about her husband’s profession. (Her spouse, Marty Ginsburg, was a year ahead of her at the law school.)

In 1956, nobody could have confidently predicted that a woman would ever serve on the Supreme Court.

Ginsburg transferred to Columbia Law School after her second year at Harvard to keep her family together. Marty had taken a job with a New York City law firm, and they had a young daughter. She graduated from Columbia in 1959, tied for first in her class, having served on both the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews. Her professors tried to find her a clerkship, but no federal judge in the area would hire a young mother. Finally, Professor Gerald Gunther persuaded a district judge, Edmund Palmieri, to hire Ginsburg by promising to find a male replacement if she didn’t work out. She worked out so well that Palmieri eagerly hired female law clerks thereafter.

In 1972, Ginsburg became the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. As she told the story, she was a direct beneficiary of affirmative action. The Nixon administration’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare was threatening to cut off federal funds to universities that discriminated against women. Columbia hired her to avert a lawsuit. That same year, Ginsburg helped found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. She argued six landmark sex discrimination cases in the Supreme Court in the 1970s, winning five.

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A great deal of Ginsburg’s work as a social reform lawyer took place outside of the courtroom. The strategy of the Women’s Rights Project included not just litigating cases but also lobbying legislatures, training lawyers and educating the public about issues of sex equality. Ginsburg devoted at least as much of her time to such pursuits as she did to litigation.

When her female students at Rutgers Law School asked for a seminar on women and the law in the late 1960s, Ginsburg spent a month in the library reading every court decision and law-review article she could find on the topic. Given the relative dearth of such material, this was “not a very taxing undertaking,” she later recalled.

Ginsburg and two of her colleagues also put together one of the nation’s first casebooks on women and the law, and she encouraged other schools to offer similar classes. She wrote numerous journal articles on sex-discrimination litigation and maintained a steady stream of correspondence with student law-review editors, urging them to write about recent sex-discrimination cases, providing them with briefs and other materials to enhance their scholarship, and supplying words of encouragement.

She also traveled around the country, testifying before state legislatures in support of the Equal Rights Amendment and speaking to ACLU affiliates and university audiences about sex-equality issues. Appreciating that social reform litigation is also about influencing public opinion, Ginsburg became an organizer, mobilizer, publicist and educator for the sex-equality movement.

It is hard for me to contemplate the Supreme Court without Ginsburg

When Ginsburg learned of the ACLU’s involvement in Reed v. Reed, which became the court’s landmark sex-discrimination case in 1971, she asked Melvin Wulf, the organization’s legal director, whether a woman ought not to be involved as co-counsel, and he promptly invited her to join him. Her leadership of the Women’s Rights Project and her oral advocacy in the Supreme Court were inspirational to countless women, and she received many notes of gratitude from those she had inspired (which she always answered).

She never failed to highlight the contributions of prior generations of feminists. In her landmark brief in Reed, she listed on the title page the names of path-breaking feminists Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray, acknowledging the intellectual debt owed to them by contemporary feminists.

And now for my other favorite story about Ginsburg. It is more personal.

In 1984, I asked Ginsburg for the day off to see my favorite baseball team, the world champion Baltimore Orioles, on Opening Day. She looked at me like I was a lunatic. To be clear, she had no problem with clerks taking time off. Part of what made her a great boss is that, while she expected us to get our work done in a timely fashion, she did not care much how we managed to do so. Had I asked for time off to attend Opening Night at her beloved opera, she would have understood completely.

Whether or not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was right that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, it is certainly possible for social-reform lawyers such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg to push it that direction.

In her decade as the nation’s leading legal advocate for sex equality, and in her 40 years as a federal judge and Supreme Court Justice, she consistently favored the causes of race and sex equality, gay rights, equal access to justice, and the bolstering of democracy. She embodied the old adage of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., that it is possible for a man — or a woman, he might have said — to live greatly in the law.

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