A Mentor, A Teacher and an Always-There Counselor: What Ruth Bader Ginsburg Gave To Her Clerks

By Brandon Vogel

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Yes, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was well aware of the public attention and adoration accorded to her.

Yes, she loved it.

More than that, she loved her clerks, the law and the family.

A number of her clerks reminisced about her life and career on the recent webinar, “Remembering RBG: An Evening With Justice Ginsburg’s Former Law Clerks.”

They recalled a judge who worked longer hours than anyone, who spent hours teaching them the finer points of writing a decision and who knew that every decision she wrote was one for the history books,

Legendary attention to detail

Subash Iyer, who clerked for Justice Ginsburg during the 2016-2017 term, said her work ethic was “unparalleled,” while well into her 80s and undeterred by her health.

“It felt like for us as law clerks, she was working nonstop,” said Iyer, special counsel for Ethics, Risk and Compliance, Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “She was always in the office, even after we all were.”

Most clerks leave the office around 7 to 8 p.m., according to Iyer. Her personal trainer of more than 20 years, Bryant Johnson, would often come in then to work out with Ginsburg for a few hours. She would come right back to the office after her rigorous workouts and continue working.

It was obvious to her clerks that she knew the record of her cases, inside and out, each time, said Iyer. “She gave each case the care and attention it required. It really was incredible.”

And yes, according to Iyer, “She was really buoyed by the public adoration and attention that her work had gotten.”

When it came to persuading her colleagues on the bench, she let her work do the talking. “At bottom, she was an educator,” said Iyer. “It goes back to attention to detail and the audience she was trying to persuade.”

She was renowned for her rewrites but Iyer noted she took the time to sit down with her clerks and go through each revision line by line. “She did not owe us for a second a reason of why she made a change on Page 4.”

She never was going to assume the worst in people, but always the best in people, said Iyer. “She cared about us. She cared about her family. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Be thoughtful and intentional

Rachel Wainer Apter, director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, learned so much from Ginsburg but what sticks out is how she taught her to be thoughtful and intentional and strategic. “She did that both in her life and in her words.”

She recalled on her interview with Ginsburg that colleagues told her to count to 10 before she spoke after Ginsburg paused. She rarely had the opportunity to do so.

Ginsburg’s speech to her was so well-planned and delivered that Apter does not recall her ever saying “oops” or “um.”

“In the age of Twitter, this is something we can use more of,” said Apter. “Words do matter. She knew how to disagree without being disagreeable.”

On writing

When Ginsburg wrote a decision, “she chose every word, she chose every comma really carefully,” said Professor Gillian Metzger, Harlan Fiske Stone Professor of Constitutional Law at Columbia. “She would excise all she deemed unnecessary and emphasized always the importance of keep it tight.”

Metzger recalls that if you ever submitted a draft to her, it would come back covered in blue pencil and reworked. “A clause without edits was a major success.”

But it did not end there.

“She taught you why each of her changes mattered,” said Metzger. “It had a huge impact on my writing.”

Even now she feels a perch on her shoulder whenever she writes, wondering if each paragraph is clear or whether or not she could cut a sentence. “I really attribute that to the justice.”

One of her greatest strengths was zeroing in on the impact a decision would have on people in their daily lives.

The clerkship did not end after the year. Metzger noted Ginsburg advocated for her clerks and often stayed in touch with them for years, getting to know their families as well.

I Dissent

In her book, “In My Own Words,” Ginsburg Supreme Court Justice quoted—CJ Hughes, who wrote in 1936, “A dissent in a court of last resort is an… appeal to the intelligence of a future day…”

Trevor Morrison, dean of New York University School of Law, noted that when Ginsburg dissented, sometimes it was simply to underscore the error in the majority’s reasoning and to express real concern of what would come from that dissent.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet, she wrote in her dissent of Shelby County v. Holder.

“I think that’s just a fantastic turn of phrase,” said Morrison. To him, this was the best example of her ability “to very carefully and step by step take apart the analysis of a majority opinion, but also to do it with a kind of pithy turn of phrase that is accessible to any reader of the opinion.”

He noted her opinions were not written for Supreme Court advocates but for the broader public. Sometimes, he thinks, she had Congress in mind, particularly the 2007 case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber.

Just like anyone else

Clara Spera, American Civil Liberties Union, the granddaughter of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, acknowledged that her grandmother was written about more than other Supreme Court justices, but her family still has plenty of personal stories they can have for themselves.

“One thing to keep in mind for everyone is that she was a human just like anyone else,” said Spera. “While it’s important to respect and admire her legacy, it is also important not to put her on a pedestal that is not achievable. She was a human, a mother, a friend, She was able to take part in her family and social life.”

While she did work long hours, Spera noted that she also attended the opera four nights a week or often dined with colleagues to balance it out. “She lived a rich and full life outside of the incredible lawyering she did.”

Spera confirmed that her grandmother had different collars for different occasions, most famously her “dissent collar” if she read a summary from the bench. It is reserved for rare occasions when judges feel strongly about a particular case.

“Most everything she wore had a story,” said Spera. Each year she bought a new blazer in Santa Fe, where she habitually attended Santa Fe Opra. She loved telling people about the blazers and the opera.

Spera relied on her grandmother’s advice when she first started law school. “Whenever you take notes, whether it is in class or at a hearing, always read them back after the event has ended,” said Spera. “Those extra five minutes will cement the notes in your brain.”

It sounded silly initially, but she quickly found she performed better in the classes where she employed her grandmother’s technique. “It is a skill that everyone can learn and say they learned from a Supreme Court justice.”

Kevin Quaratino, New York State Unified Court System, and Viktoriya Liberchuk, Farrell Fritz, moderated the discussion.

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