Ginsburg clerks remember her as a mentor who treated them like family
By Hailey Fuchs
For the birthdays of her Supreme Court clerks, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would often bring a cake baked by her husband, Marty, a tax lawyer and deft chef, serving it at a celebration in her chambers.
When the clerks had children, the justice would send onesies or tiny T-shirts emblazoned with “R.B.G. grandclerk.”
She played matchmaker for a few, doled out job recommendations and medical referrals to many, and officiated some of their weddings.
As the nation and its leaders began a period of public mourning on Wednesday for Ginsburg — hailing her as a legal giant, a trailblazing woman and a fierce champion of equality — her former clerks, the exclusive group of people who worked by her side during her years as a judge and justice, remembered her in more personal ways, as an exacting mentor who treated them like family.
About 120 of the justice’s former law clerks, from the Supreme Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, lined the steps of the Supreme Court on Wednesday morning as honorary pallbearers. Many traveled far to pay their final respects to a woman they revered.
“It was our solemn duty to stand in honor of her and serve her this one last time,” said Amanda L. Tyler, a professor at the law school of the University of California, Berkeley, who served as an honorary pallbearer. “We came out en masse to help her one final time.”
Each year, Ginsburg selected about four or five people — who were usually not long out of law school — for the coveted privilege of serving as her clerks. Before their interviews, those vying for the post were often counseled to expect long pauses from the soft-spoken justice, who was known for her deliberateness with her words.
But those interviews often became informal and personal. Kelsi Corkran, who heads the Supreme Court practice at the law firm Orrick, recalled that hers had touched on the paintings in Ginsburg’s office and Corkran’s children.
“For me to show up with two young children and for the justice to not see that as an impediment for me to fully do the work was certainly a sign of the progress that she had brought forth through her work,” Corkran said, noting that Ginsburg had been rejected for a clerkship with Justice Felix Frankfurter because she was a mother.
Neil S. Siegel, a professor at the Duke University School of Law, recalled that during his interview with Ginsburg, he mentioned an author whom he had read and who happened to be speaking at the Supreme Court Historical Society that evening. Ginsburg invited Siegel to join her at the event with her husband, and at the end of the night, the justice offered Siegel the clerkship.
In the many hours she shared with her clerks, Ginsburg developed a personal bond that extended beyond their professional relationship. Many grew to know her husband well, too.
Paul S. Berman, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who clerked for Ginsburg beginning in 1997, remembered one day when she buzzed him on the intercom, which usually meant she had a request. Instead, she was calling because she had found out that Berman had begun dating a clerk who worked in another justice’s chambers.
“I didn’t know you had a special friend at the court,” Ginsburg told him. “You must have her up for tea.”
The next week, Ginsburg hosted Berman and his new girlfriend in her chambers for high tea, with a tablecloth and fine china. Naturally, he said, she officiated their wedding several years later.
The warmth and generosity came with high standards, former clerks said in interviews, recounting the professional rigor applied by Ginsburg, who was a stickler for detail. As part of their duties, clerks were expected to draft opinions with triple spacing, leaving ample room for her meticulous editing and handwritten comments. They often spent late nights at the justice’s elbow as she reviewed draft after draft.
“Get it right and keep it tight” was one of the justice’s catchphrases, said Ruthanne Deutsch, an appellate lawyer who served as a clerk to Ginsburg from 2007 through 2008. The job was a “master course in how to write,” she said.
“It meant an excruciating attention to every word to make sure that there was no excess — that every word, every phrase, every paragraph in an opinion had a purpose,” Deutsch added.
Some clerks stayed with the justice late into the night while she toiled over opinions. But Joseph Palmore, a clerk from 2001 to 2002, had a baby at home when he worked for Ginsburg; she often encouraged him to return home for dinner to spend time with his family.
Shortly after Trevor W. Morrison learned that he had been selected for a clerkship with Ginsburg, he mailed her a baby announcement. She responded by sending one of her famous “R.B.G. grandclerk” outfits.
“She treated her clerks and their families as an extended family,” said Morrison, who is now the dean of New York University School of Law.