I was very saddened to read yesterday of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, after a long and hard-fought battle with cancer. She was one of those rare Supreme Court justices who was not only a towering legal figure, but also a titanic cultural figure as well.
As the second woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg was a role model and iconic figure for generations of women entering the legal profession and, more broadly, women breaking boundaries in formerly male-dominated professions of all kinds. Her jurisprudence shows that she was a tireless, and relentless, advocate for women’s rights, but also a brilliant and careful legal analyst and deft writer whose considerable brainpower was well applied to every case that came before the Supreme Court.
And in my view, at least, Justice Ginsburg was an important cultural figure in another way as well. She was great friends with former Justice Antonin Scalia, even though their views on the law and its purpose could not have been farther apart. They shared a love of opera, enjoyed socializing, and actually performed on stage in a 1994 Washington National Opera production. It says something about the character and temperament of both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia that they could put aside their political and legal disagreements and still enjoy each other’s company. It’s a quality that we could use a bit more of in these bitterly divided, hyperpartisan times.
I had the privilege of actually interviewing for a clerkship position with Judge Ginsburg in 1984, when she was serving as one of the leading, up-and-coming judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and I was beginning my third year of law school. I had sent resumes and letters to all of the court of appeals judges and was thrilled to get a callback interview with Judge Ginsburg. (I suspect that her husband, Martin Ginsburg, a Georgetown Law professor who had taught two tax classes I had taken, may have put in a good word for me.) Alas, when I arrived for the interview Judge Ginsburg told me, with characteristic gentle forthrightness, that she had just offered the position to another candidate, who had accepted, and she said that under the circumstances if I wanted to skip the interview she would understand and be fine with that.
I was disappointed at the news, but figured what the heck — how often am I going to get a chance to talk for a while with one of the world’s leading legal minds? — so I said if it was okay with her I’d like to stay and chat, anyway. We spent a very enjoyable hour talking about her husband and his great teaching style and a law review article I was working on about the intersession pocket veto, an issue that had arisen before the D.C. Circuit. Judge Ginsburg asked some incisive questions about the issues and had some interesting observations about them, and then flattered me by asking for a copy of my draft article, which I promptly sent. I may not have gotten a clerkship out of our brief encounter, but I did get a good story and some insights into an important historical figure from the experience.
When President Clinton appointed Justice Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, I knew she would be an important Justice, and of course she was. Today I remember not only the leading jurist and influential role model, but also the funny, dynamic person I met more than 35 years ago. The world is a little poorer today with her passing.