My Interview With RBG

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.

The Justice Scalia I Knew

The news media is reporting that United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died today, apparently of natural causes, at age 79.

Justice Scalia served on the Court for 30 years.  He was a staunch conservative, and as a result he was the subject of lots of controversy and attention — as is seemingly every member of the Court, from one end of the political spectrum or the other, in these days when the Supreme Court and politics are more intertwined than ever.

960I want to write about Justice Scalia for a moment, however, because he was one of two members of the Supreme Court I met personally.  (His friend and colleague, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, was the other.)

I met Justice Scalia before he reached the high court, when he was a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  In those days, 30 years ago, trying to achieve a balanced budget was a big political issue, and Congress had passed a law called the Gramm-Rudman Act that provided that, if Congress couldn’t meet certain budget targets, automatic spending cuts would be imposed by the comptroller general.  The law was immediately challenged in court on a number of constitutional grounds, including separation of powers, and the judge that I was clerking for, Senior United States District Judge Oliver Gasch, got the case by random draw.  In those days, such constitutional challenges to federal statutes could be heard by a three-judge court — comprised of the original judge, a court of appeals judge, and a second district court judge — and then be subject to immediate appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Judge Scalia was the appellate court judge, and Judge Norma Holloway Johnson was the other district court judge on the panel.

The panel members and their clerks met regularly to discuss the case before the decision was announced, which is how I met Justice Scalia and got to work with him briefly.  Judge Gasch knew him, called him “Nino,” and liked him very much — so much so that my Judge gave some of his treasured cigars to Judge Scalia.  I came to like Judge Scalia, too.  He was witty and engaging and nice to the clerks working on the case, which could not be said of all of the judges serving on the district court and court of appeals at that time.  He had a fantastic sense of humor and told a pretty good joke.  He also was obviously a brilliant mind, which made working with him, when you knew his keen intellect would be reviewing your work product, a nerve-wracking experience for a new lawyer just out of law school.  Justice Scalia, though, was gracious, and his attitude made working with him a real pleasure.  He used his brilliance affirmatively, to bring out the best work from others, rather than negatively, as a cudgel or means of silencing contrary views.

The Gramm-Rudman case ended with our three-judge court unanimously voting to strike down the law, everyone went back to their respective chambers, and my brief exposure to Judge Scalia ended.  Within a short period the Supreme Court affirmed the panel decision and Judge Scalia himself was nominated to a seat on the Supreme Court — which was where his sharp legal mind really belonged — and confirmed.

I knew him only for a short time, but that limited experience left a very strong and positive impression on me, and I thank him for that.  Whatever people might say about his jurisprudence, I know from personal experience that he was a good man.  Condolences to his family and friends.