Former Clerks for Justice Ginsburg Reminisce

Former Clerks for Justice Ginsburg Reminisce

WORKING IN TIGHT quarters under tight pressure, clerks can get to know their justices well and take note of endearing routines and eccentricities. The late Professor Milton Handler '26, who clerked for Justice Harlan Fiske Stone 1898, was sometimes called upon to fetch books on interior architecture from the Library of Congress because Justice Stone was building a new home and wanted every detail, from fireplaces to hardware, just so. Professor Peter Strauss discovered, while clerking for William Brennan in 1965-66, that the Justice opened the day in chambers with a discussion over coffee with his clerks. "If the other clerk and I didn't get there to make the coffee first, Justice Brennan did," he recalls. Following are the reminiscences of two of Justice Ginsburg's clerks about ‘life in chambers'.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is like a mother to her clerks. She marks their birthdays with a delicious cake baked by her husband Marty (one of the world's greatest tax lawyers). The former Rutgers and Columbia professor also gives her clerks intensive tutorials in legal analysis and writing. "Get it right and keep it tight" is the chambers motto on opinions. Be scrupulously fair to counter-arguments - or, as the Justice puts it, "don't sweep the other side's chess pieces off the table."

In rewriting her drafts again and again, the Justice also teaches clerks the extraordinary value of precision and persistence. I remember marveling at her ability to offer fresh insights about language she already had revisited several times. As witnesses to this rigorous process, clerks know something that the broader world does not: The Justice has more energy than the young lawyers who work for her.

Although the Justice is incredibly demanding of herself - working late into the night, every night - she is an extremely generous boss. There's no such thing as "face time" in her chambers, and the hours are flexible for clerks. I got in early and went home early, while one of my co-clerks came in late and worked late. The dress code also is quite casual. Indeed, the Justice never said a word about the frayed jeans I liked to wear (although my co-clerks eventually persuaded me to retire them).

The Justice also is a loyal and generous mentor. She helped me find what I love to do - I teach tax at Columbia - but she gave this guidance with a very light hand. Toward the end of my clerkship, I asked her what job I should take. Reluctant to intrude, she said, wisely but cryptically, that I should do what I like to do. Eager for more specific guidance, I told her that I loved statutory analysis and was also interested in business. With characteristic subtlety and a wry smile, she answered me with a question. "Have you talked to Marty about tax?" Looking back, I remember the conversation as a model in parenting. There's simply no better way to give advice about an important life decision.

I still recall my parting thought as I left Justice Ginsburg's chambers on my last day: A Supreme Court clerkship truly is a privilege; even so, the best thing about the year was not working at the Supreme Court, but working for her.

— Professor David Schizer (1994-95)

Photo: Dustin Ross

A FEW WEEKS after my clerkship ended this past July, Justice Ginsburg and Marty called me together from Cooperstown, N.Y., to offer me job advice. Though brief, the call illuminates many of the qualities that made the Justice such an unforgettable boss. They called post-opera, happy and laughing. This was typical. Even during the toughest parts of the term, the Justice managed to work harder than all her clerks, yet vigorously pursue her interest in opera and the arts. She shared this passion with us, taking us on an afternoon excursion to Aida (she even provided chocolate covered pecans for intermission) and sharing extra tickets with us for dress rehearsals to the symphony.

It was also typical that the Justice was awake and taking time to help a law clerk, though it was late and she was out of town. As I quickly learned, Justice Ginsburg could accomplish more between 10 p.m. and midnight than I could all day. She learned, too, that I lacked her night-owl stamina. Occasionally, when I was working particularly late, she would call me from home.

"Go home, Liz," she'd say. "This can wait until morning."

Throughout the term, my schedule was at odds with hers - I'd come in quite early, then dash out the door in time to pick up my son at daycare, while she was just settling into her evening's work - but she never expressed a moment's frustration. In December, an extremely busy month on the Court, I left work mid-day because my son had a fever. The Justice called, not to berate me for leaving the office, but just to make sure Luke was okay.

Finally, it was typical that the Justice called that evening from Cooperstown with Marty. We marked many highlights of the term with the two of them, from a dinner at their home at the close of October's arguments, to a leisurely lunch at a local French restaurant commemorating the end of our time at the Court. Marty did not attend our chambers birthday celebrations, but he baked the cakes, so we definitely felt his presence. When they called me, they passed the receiver back and forth between them, Marty first. Whichever of them was not talking would chime in from the background. Their advice was sage, their tone low-key. Just as during oral argument, the Justice asked essential questions.

I hung up the phone, feeling quite well advised, then stayed up quite late (for me), musing over the past year. The lesson of Aida, the Justice once said, was that jealousy can destroy you. I have never met anyone with so little reason to be jealous as Justice Ginsburg.

 — Liz Porter (2002-03)
(Ms. Porter is an associate at Jenner & Block in Washington, D.C.)