Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Opera Fan, Swedish Translator, Icon and Friend

GW Law faculty and alumni recalled personal memories of the Supreme Court justice who died Sept. 18.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg at GW in 2017. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at GW in 2017. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
September 25, 2020

By Ruth Steinhardt

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died Sept. 18, some members of the George Washington University Law School community lost not only an icon but also a friend and mentor.

Her fierce, precise intellect, her love of the performing arts and her belief in a more humane world came through strongly at a virtual discussion Wednesday afternoon, when five GW Law faculty and alumni who had close personal relationships with Justice Ginsburg recalled her in conversation with GW Law Dean and Harold H. Greene Professor of Law Dayna Bowen Matthew.

“Since the moment we received the heartbreaking news Friday evening of Justice Ginsburg’s passing, our thoughts have centered on the beloved judicial icon who fought tirelessly for women’s rights, gender equality and civil rights writ large,” Dr. Matthew said. “She leaves behind an incredible legacy and touched the lives of countless Americans, including—and tonight especially—many members of the GW Law community who counted her as a friend.”

GW Law Professor Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center (NCC) and author of “Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty and Law,” first met the justice on an elevator. He was a young clerk at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, on an errand for another judge; she was a Supreme Court justice emerging from a Jazzercise class. Immediately, Mr. Rosen was struck by her “Zen-like serenity, which people who hadn’t met her could mistake for inaccessibility.”

“It was a very long elevator ride with this completely silent and extraordinarily intimidating woman, so I had to break the ice to say something,” he said. “I don’t know what serendipity led me to blurt this out, but I just asked, ‘What operas have you seen recently?’…And it of course was the right question.”

Sparked by this mutual interest, their friendship would continue for decades. When Mr. Rosen and the NCC honored Justice Ginsburg with the 2020 Liberty Medal the day before her death, it was with a performance by her favorite opera singers. Mr. Rosen urged the audience to watch a video of the ceremony and to note the remarks that Justice Ginsburg made. “I think it’s the most wonderful tribute to her,” he said.

He said law students should take inspiration from her legacy as an advocate and jurist whose view of the Constitution was broad and compassionate.

“She believed that the Constitution was becoming ever more ‘embracive,’ and when I asked her what she meant, she said, ‘Embracing the left-out people, not just grudgingly, but with open arms,’” he said. “I hope law students will be inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s sense of optimism—that with hard work and determination and using your talents to the full extent of your abilities, you, as lawyers, working with others, can change the world and make the Constitution more embracive.”

Paul Schiff Berman, who clerked for Justice Ginsburg in the 1997 to 1998 Supreme Court term, remembered how intimidated he felt before his interview for the clerk position.

“I was told that Justice Ginsburg has the greatest tolerance for conversational silence of anyone you will ever meet, and if you are going to interview her, or be in her presence, you have to get in kind of a Zen state where you’re focused and calm and not buffeted by emotion or extraneous jitters,” he said. “You need to only speak when you have something to say, and say what you have to say carefully and in a focused, thoughtful way.”

As it turned out, they had plenty to talk about, including theater, since Mr. Berman had been a director before attending law school. Besides, Justice Ginsburg had analyzed every word of an article Mr. Berman had published and was ready to discuss.

“She had it in front of her with pencil markings—‘I’m not sure I agree with your citation in footnote 69,’ that kind of thing,” he said.

The justice later officiated Mr. Berman’s marriage to Laura Dickinson, now Oswald Symister Colclough Research Professor of Law at GW. The couple met at the Supreme Court, where Ms. Dickinson was a clerk for Justices Harry Blackmun and Stephen Breyer.

One of Ms. Dickinson’s most vivid memories of Justice Ginsburg involved the opera, which she famously loved and made time for throughout her life. Until the moment the performance started, however, the justice’s mind was on her work.

“She would take clerks to see opera, and I remember one occasion where she took a group of us to not opera, but Gilbert and Sullivan, which she also loved,” Ms. Dickinson said. “And when we all sat down, before the curtain rose and before the lights dimmed, she pulled out some work and started to review it.”

Research Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Constitutional History Maeva Marcus was a close friend of Justice Ginsburg and of her late husband, Georgetown University law professor Marty Ginsburg—a friendship so longstanding that its origins are a mystery.

“Truthfully, I don’t remember exactly when we met,” Dr. Marcus said.

But she did remember Justice Ginsburg as a dinner companion, a fellow fan of opera and history, a powerful intellect and even, at least once, a research assistant. When Dr. Marcus was working on “The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800,” she had to turn to Justice Ginsburg, who had spent time working on civil procedure in Sweden, for help translating 18th-century Swedish documents.

“She was absolutely wonderful in all ways,” Dr. Marcus said.

Alumnus Gregory G. Garre, JD ’91, said his relationship with Justice Ginsburg was more professional than personal: He argued dozens of cases before her as partner and global chair of Latham & Watkins’ Supreme Court practice and, before that, as U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush. But he stressed his enormous regard for Justice Ginsburg’s legal mind, her attention to detail and the way she treated the advocates before her.

“Appearing before her, you knew she had read every single word, every single line of your brief,” he said. “She really was the ideal judge to appear before as an advocate: She was extraordinarily well prepared, she asked pointed, precise questions [and] she allowed you to answer them….and then she would push back.

“It’s really unimaginable to think of appearing before the Supreme Court without Justice Ginsburg there in the middle, with her forceful presence,” he said.

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Former Clerk Remembers Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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GW Law professor Paul Schiff Berman, who clerked for the justice in the 1997-1998 term of the Supreme Court, shared his thoughts on her legacy.