By Greg Varner
Several former clerks for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who served on the United States Supreme Court from 1993 until her death in 2020, gathered to consider the legacy of their friend and former boss on Thursday, the first day of a virtual symposium sponsored by The George Washington Law Review. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer delivered an address in praise of his former colleague.
GW Law students edit and publish the Law Review six times a year. Established in 1932, the journal also presents an annual symposium. The title for this year’s gathering was “The Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
Breyer praised his former colleague as “a great jurist, a great justice, a woman of valor, a rock of righteousness and my very, very good friend.”
Dayna Bowen Matthew, dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law, introduced Breyer after making a few remarks. She singled out Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions for special praise.
“One of her most important dissents, written together with Justice Souter, was in Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher v. Bollinger,” Matthew said. “There she had the prescient knowledge of racial discrimination being not only conscious but unconscious and made it possible for us to think about ways in which law might address both of these forms.”
Breyer said Ginsburg “will be remembered as a brilliant judge who did much for women and indeed for everyone.” He lauded her intelligence, her work ethic, and her attentiveness to the details of her cases, of her interpersonal relationships and even of her clothes. Working with her, he said, never failed to be interesting, challenging and educational.
“The longer you knew her, the more you liked her,” Breyer said. “I knew her many years, and I did like her very much. I will miss Ruth very much indeed.”
Her legal opinions reflected her basic decency, he added, before going on to praise her assumption that the object of law is to help people lead better lives.
“She understood the basic indecency of discrimination and unfair treatment,” Breyer said.
He also commended her sense of humor. Not long before Ginsburg died, he remembered, she sent him a birthday card with a picture of herself delivering a regal message: “I order you to have a happy birthday.” Inside the card, he said, “She wrote, ‘We’ll get together when this epidemic is over and see an opera and life will go on.’ Even now, thinking about that cheers me up.”
He compared Ginsburg’s legacy to that of Thurgood Marshall, the towering civil rights lawyer and the first Black Supreme Court justice. Breyer remembered the day when Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired, told him that Marshall had confided in her that he was unsure of his accomplishments on the court. O’Connor said she told Marshall that even if he had never served on the court, he would be a national hero. Breyer said he felt the same way about Ginsburg, whom he praised as an exemplary role model.
“She did a lot to overcome stereotypes, discrimination, and stereotypical thinking,” Breyer said. “She was a wonderful person.”
Remembering Ginsburg as a mentor
Three judges, all former clerks for Ginsburg, served on a panel for another session. Moderator Bradford R. Clark, the William Cranch Research Professor of Law, began by asking the trio of judges what they considered the most significant aspect of Ginsburg’s legacy.
Goodwin Liu, now an associate justice on the Supreme Court of California, echoed Breyer when he extolled Ginsburg’s achievements even before she joined the Supreme Court.
“I think it’s fair to say that if Ruth Bader Ginsburg the lawyer had simply hung up her law license after founding the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, her place in history would be secure,” Liu said.
John B. Owens, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, said that though Ginsburg was reserved, she had a steel backbone.
“If you look at her career as a lawyer,” Owens said, “she had to convince panels of men of positions that back then seemed crazy—and she kept winning.”
Maybe because Ginsburg was reserved, he added, it gave people confidence that she was genuine, not putting on some kind of show.
Paul Watford, also a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, said that Ginsburg helped pave a path for women on the bench. Ginsburg was only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, following O’Connor’s historic appointment.
Ginsburg’s former clerks also praised her work ethic. Liu described how impressed he was, and remains, to have seen “someone at her level sweat all the small stuff.”
Echoing the comments of others about her extraordinary level of preparedness, Owens said, “She always taught us that you can never be the second most prepared person in the courtroom if you want to win.”
Ginsburg set a good example in more ways than he could count, Watford said. On the personal side, he was impressed by the distinctive partnership Ginsburg shared with her husband, Marty.
“He supported her in her career and took so much pride in her achievements and vice versa,” Watford said. “I’ve tried to model what I saw between them in my own marriage.”
Watford said he was also impressed by Ginsburg’s ability to be friends with colleagues with whom she had fundamental disagreements. He tries to follow her example in his own relations with colleagues.
The judges said they admire the fortitude Ginsburg displayed in facing health challenges.
“She’s the toughest person I ever met,” Owens said. “No one is as tough as her.”
Ginsburg’s skill as a teacher impressed them all as well. Watford said teaching came naturally to her.
Owens joined the other judges in celebrating Ginsburg’s habit of supporting them all both personally and professionally, even after their days as her law clerk.
“We gave her a year, but she gave us her whole life,” he said.