March 8 is International Women’s Day. To celebrate, we asked women like Jackie Aina, Cecile Richards, and these nine former clerks to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to reflect on how other women have lifted them up—mentored them, advised them, represented them, and above all showed them what was possible.
It is one of the most coveted jobs not just in the world of law, but across all three branches of government. It is also one of the most invisible. Ahead of each term at the Supreme Court, the nine justices announce a new cohort of clerks.
In a word, law clerks are interns. But their responsibilities include doing some of the most consequential administrative work in the nation. Clerks read petitions and recommend cases to the justices. Some author draft opinions. Others serve as sounding boards—testing out possible arguments with their boss. Three members of the current Supreme Court—Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh—were clerks themselves. Still, for all the pomp and circumstance, the list of those selected tends to constitute news in a limited circle—among recent graduates of top law schools and at elite firms.
But from time to time, the reveal attracts more widespread attention. And at least one time, it went viral.
At the start of 2018, cultural icon and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was about to mark her 25th anniversary on the bench and her 85th birthday. Between the two milestones, some wondered whether her retirement was imminent. But with President Donald Trump in the White House, the Notorious RBG made clear she intended to remain in her position—in her usual understated fashion. How? She hired clerks to serve in two more terms.
It’s rare that a filled job posting starts trending on Twitter, but it’s fair to describe what ensued on the internet as “progressive social media users losing their minds.”
A popular gif depicted Ginsburg shooting rainbow laser beams out of her palms. A Harvard legal scholar tweeted: “Great news: Justice Ginsburg has hired a full slate of law clerks through 2020. Take that, ‘stable genius’ Donald.” The clerks themselves—well, it didn’t much matter who had gotten the gig. What mattered was that RBG had decided to stick around.
In terms of priorities, her clerks echo the public consensus: It’s her that’s important, not them.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of the longest-serving justices, which means she has recruited—and coached and mentored and cultivated—more clerks than perhaps a single other justice outside of William O. Douglas (who held onto his position for a whopping 36 years). A significant portion of them have been women.
But she didn’t just hire women. She talked to them about their families and child care and relationships and workload. She talked to them about our flawed United States of America and opera.
To hear the women who worked for her tell it, the impact she had on them far exceeded the time spent in her chambers. With her example, an entire generation of women has risen up in the courts, teaching law, practicing it, deciding it, adjudicating it—all the while working toward that more perfect union.
In interviews, Ginsburg likes to recall how she is sometimes asked when she will be satisfied with the number of women on the Supreme Court. She tells her questioners, “When there are nine.”
Here, nine former clerks reflect on lessons learned from the Notorious RBG.
I vividly recall the night a decade ago when I was clerking for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and she told me about the landmark cases she litigated to battle gender discrimination in the 1970s. She described the facts of the cases, the strategic decisions she made about how to present novel equal protection claims, and specific back-and-forths she had with the justices when she was in oral arguments, making history.
Her work helped eliminate discriminatory laws across the nation, benefiting everyone. But as she described the cases, what stood out to me was her focus on the individual plaintiffs she had represented. These were their stories, and it was clear to anyone listening that she never saw them as mere vehicles for social advancement. Justice Ginsburg is rightly celebrated as a heroine who fought injustice to improve women’s—and men’s!—lives. But she never loses sight of the fact that she was advocating for real men and women to help them solve real-life problems.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1993
Of course, hearing Justice Ginsburg’s war stories was just one highlight among many of my clerkship. Also on the list? The dozens of hours I spent learning about the craft of writing from her as we reviewed draft opinions line by line to make sure every word was right. Her attention to detail and precision has been a model for my writing ever since. Her work ethic is equally inspirational. She invests whatever time is needed to reach the right decision, never compromising on quality.
And then there are all the personal moments, both during the clerkship and in the years since—the time I accompanied the Justice to the opera and witnessed her passion for music firsthand; the conversation we had when I told her I was pregnant and she described how her beloved husband Marty had timed her contractions when she was giving birth, but rigged the math to make them seem more bearable; the times I have stood at the podium to deliver my own Supreme Court arguments and watched Justice Ginsburg smile to put me at ease—before grilling me with pointed questions. She is unrelenting grace.
Elizabeth Prelogar is a partner at Cooley LLP, where she focuses on Supreme Court and appellate litigation. Prelogar previously clerked for Justice Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan and worked at the Department of Justice, where she represented the United States in the Supreme Court and was assistant special counsel to Robert S. Mueller III.
Rachel Wainer Apter
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is everything she is cracked up to be. Feminist icon. Brilliant jurist. Fierce dissenter. Supreme Court celebrity, whose likeness appears on tote bags, earrings, and tattoos. Pioneer for gender equality, responsible for getting nine male justices to recognize gender discrimination, and to enshrine equal rights and responsibilities for men and women into the United States Constitution.
She is also an incredible boss, mentor, and friend.
I was lucky enough to clerk for Justice Ginsburg in the 2011–2012 term. It was the best job I ever had. But I have been even luckier to maintain a close relationship with the Justice in the years since. One of the things we have discussed is how to work and raise children at the same time. Two lessons stand out.
Be thoughtful and strategic: As the cofounder of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, Justice Ginsburg was intentional about the legal arguments she advanced and the cases she brought, carefully formulating a plan to convince the Supreme Court that the Constitution’s equal protection clause guarantees equal citizenship to women. She is the same way today. The Justice thinks before she speaks. She never says “oops” or “um” or “uh.” She can dictate a full-page court order with no notes and no revisions. In the age of Twitter, this is something we could all use a bit more of. But it is also a valuable lesson for working parents.
Becoming a parent made me more productive at work. When I had my first child, time became my most precious commodity, and I became much better at guarding it. But in the years since, I too often slipped into immediately saying “yes”—to events, volunteer requests, and more. Conversations with the Justice helped me to be more thoughtful and strategic. Is this really worth missing bedtime or a chance to help my 11-year-old with her math homework? If not, I try to say no.
The Justice was telling me: Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint; you don’t need to accomplish everything at one time.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint: In the 34 years between the time she graduated law school and the time she took her seat on the Supreme Court, Justice Ginsburg worked as a law clerk, co-authored a book on Sweden’s judicial system, became a professor at Rutgers Law School and the first woman to receive tenure at Columbia Law School, started the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, and served as a judge on the D.C. Circuit for 13 years. She also raised two children.
The Justice reminded me of this several years ago when I sought her career advice. I had so many things I wanted to do and accomplish. After our conversation, I received the following email from the Justice: “Distant as it may seem to you now, you will have many work-productive years ahead after your children become adults.” I cried while reading it. The Justice was telling me: Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint; you don’t need to accomplish everything at one time.
Rachel Wainer Apter serves as the director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. She clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the 2011 term. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Division on Civil Rights, the Attorney General, the Department of Law and Public Safety, or the State of New Jersey. This tribute was adapted from an earlier version that appeared on Law360.
It was the honor of a lifetime to clerk for Justice Ginsburg. She had been a hero to me before I clerked, but the clerkship showed in vivid detail the Justice’s dedication to her work and her family.
Even today, when I receive a call from my sons’ school while I am at work, I sometimes shake my first in the air as if to say, “You should be calling their father!” and I think of her.
I am reminded of the story that the Justice admonished school administrators when they called her instead of her husband Marty for a child’s minor bump or scrape. (When the school did once call him to report that their son had “stolen an elevator,” Marty famously replied that he couldn’t have taken it very far.)
Sometimes, at least, I learn that the school did also call my husband, and I feel like we’ve made at least some progress. I am inspired by her daily and I am so grateful for her work to create change.
Pamela Bookman is an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School.
Lisa Beattie Frelinghuysen
The year I clerked for Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court took a case, United States v. Virginia, involving the Virginia Military Institute, an all-male state college that trained its students to be great “citizen soldiers,” leaders in business and the military. Women sought to attend VMI’s unique program of leadership, and the United States brought a suit on their behalf.
Working with RBG, who was largely responsible for establishing gender equality as a young advocate before the Supreme Court, on her first gender equality case as a Justice, was thrilling. Thoughtful in her opinion, she held a large majority—7 to 1—and required states wishing to defend gender classifications to provide “an exceedingly persuasive justification.” I’ve always loved those words.
The Court held that VMI had to open its doors to “women seeking and fit for a VMI-quality education,” and because it was a big case, the Justice read a summary from the bench, noting that equality under the Constitution did not allow laws or policies that deny to women, “simply because they are women, equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at her swearing in 1993
Twenty years later, the Justice and I visited VMI together. I remember sitting in the car with her, opera music blaring, as we approached the formidable military-style VMI barracks. We met some of the first women cadets of the school, who thanked the Justice for making their dreams come true. And we visited with current cadets, standing in uniform with their back straight and hair buns tight, who were clearly thriving, studying nuclear physics and environmental issues. It was an inspiring day.
A year later, when Sarah Zorn, a female cadet at the Citadel, was appointed the first regimental commander, leading the corps’ five battalions and 21 companies, I wrote to the Justice, “How great is that, when only 10% of the student body is female?” The Justice wrote back, “70 push-ups in two minutes; impressive.” I wondered, was the Justice considering the next level in her RBG workout?
This Justice cares deeply about equality for all, about extending constitutional protections to people previously excluded, and about our evolving understanding of We the People. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With the strength of that first regimental commander and exceedingly persuasive reasoning, Ruth Bader Ginsburg continues to bend that arc acutely toward justice.
Lisa Beattie Frelinghuysen clerked for Justice Ginsburg in 1995, practiced law with Williams & Connolly, and currently works for Banyan Global advising the owners of large, closely held companies. She lives in New York with her husband and four children.
I was 25 years old in 1993, when Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and I began my two-year clerkship with her. It was, of course, a formative experience for me both personally and professionally.
The personal education was about life partnership: A few years later, I married another one of Justice Ginsburg’s law clerks—and Sam and I both benefited from the incredible education offered by the model of Marty and Ruth Ginsburg’s truly egalitarian marriage, between two amazingly accomplished partners.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, pictured during her first term on the Supreme Court in 1993.
On a professional level, the lessons covered many topics. I learned from the Justice what meticulous attention to accuracy really looks like. I hope I absorbed some of RBG’s legal judgment; I know I learned about careful writing and analysis. I have never met or seen work by a better lawyer, so she has given me a mark to strive to meet for the rest of my career. (The Justice was so painstaking in her word choice even in casual conversation that I also learned that slow talking is far from slow thinking.)
But more important than those lessons was my observation of Justice Ginsburg’s commitment to equality under the law. RBG is one of just two civil rights lawyers who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court. (Thurgood Marshall is the other.) The equality ideal—that in America all people should have an equal opportunity to flourish—has been the guiding star of her jurisprudence.
What we should all learn from RBG is that equality matters—and mere lip service is not enough.
Her equality opinions do more than just invoke an abstract equality ideal. They reflect a keen understanding of the practical. As befits a former civil rights lawyer, Justice Ginsburg sees how inequality actually operates in the workplace and elsewhere, and she is relentlessly attentive to the ways in which laws can alleviate—or exacerbate—those inequalities. Law can and should effectively remove practical impediments to equality.
I could cite you to case after case, opinion after opinion. Whether she’s writing about women’s access to full citizenship and all it entails, about voting rights for members of racial minorities, or about marriage equality, what we should all learn from RBG is that equality matters—and mere lip service is not enough.
Margo Schlanger is the Wade H. and Dores M. McCree Collegiate Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. This tribute was adapted from an earlier version that appeared in Law360.
I started my clerkship for Ruth Bader Ginsburg on my firstborn’s 10th birthday. As a mother of two pursuing a demanding career, I found RBG was a wonderful boss and she has been a continuing mentor. She taught me that it is possible to have it all, but as she often says, not all at once. Her own incredible marriage also taught me that the give and take of work demands and parenting demands is far easier to negotiate with a life partner that is equally committed to parenting. Her commitment to excellence helped me be a better lawyer—and a better mother.
Ruthanne Deutsch is an appellate lawyer at Deutsch Hunt PLLC and the proud mom of two wonderful young men.
Justice Ginsburg grew up at a time when most in our society simply accepted that women, by and large, were fundamentally different from men. She had the vision, courage, and fortitude to challenge gender-based assumptions that limited the opportunities and choices of both women and men. By changing the law, Justice Ginsburg’s work transformed our attitudes and expectations. Thanks to her creativity, tenacity, and tireless efforts, each of us enjoys greater freedom to live as we choose.
Dori Bernstein served as a law clerk to then Judge Ginsburg on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. She later worked as an appellate attorney at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and as director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center.
Kelsi Brown Corkran
Although Justice Ginsburg’s record as a trailblazing advocate for gender equality dates back over half a century, it was a meme in June 2013 that launched her into worldwide fame. The Supreme Court had just gutted the Voting Rights Act, and as she often does when her colleagues take a wrong turn, the Justice dissented. “Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the Voting Rights Act,” she wrote, adding the court’s disregard for the act’s continuing importance was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Fierce, incisive writing had long been her hallmark—for decades, she had been eloquently, forcefully, and sometimes scathingly dismantling the myths that allow injustice to fester. But this time her words hit a louder chord than usual. Within hours, a portrait of the 80-year-old Justice was trending on social media, emblazoned with a chalk-like drawing of a crown on her head and the phrase “Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth.”
She was already a rock star to me and my co-clerks, but over the next few months her fanbase grew by millions, and then tens and hundreds of millions, until she became one of the most well-known and admired women in the world.
A few days later, I arrived at Justice Ginsburg’s chambers for the extraordinary and surreal honor of a yearlong clerkship assisting the Justice in preparing for argument and in drafting her opinions. She was already a rock star to me and my co-clerks, but over the next few months her fanbase grew by millions, and then tens and hundreds of millions, until she became one of the most well-known and admired women in the world.
The Justice’s burgeoning celebrity that year was mostly just amusing to her (and to us when tasked with responsibilities like explaining where her new moniker The Notorious RBG came from). It never distracted her from her work, and it has remained that way since. For all the public adulation, pop culture references, documentaries, and feature films celebrating her accomplishments, the Justice’s singular focus is and always has been summed up by that first meme: telling the truth.
Long before believing women became a rallying cry, before there was any reason to think her voice mattered or that anyone would listen, Ruth Bader Ginsburg steadfastly insisted on calling out injustice, not just with lofty rhetoric, but by documenting with painstaking accuracy every fact and perspective that had been ignored.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg celebrates her 20th anniversary on the bench in 2015.
First in her briefs as an ACLU attorney and then for the last four decades in her judicial opinions, she has told in careful and unvarnished detail the truth about gender stereotypes, women’s health, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, workers’ rights—holding on always to what she describes as “the dissenter’s hope”—that shedding light on inequity today may help eradicate it tomorrow.
In a political climate dismissive not only of women’s voices but of truth itself, Justice Ginsburg’s legacy has taken on new significance for me. It is a call to boldly claim our stories and experiences no matter who believes them, to write them down and declare their truth. To unapologetically, relentlessly dissent with all the hope we can muster.
Kelsi Brown Corkran is a partner in the Supreme Court and appellate practice at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Washington, D.C.
Serving as one of Justice Ginsburg’s law clerks was a defining experience in my legal career. Justice Ginsburg teaches her clerks by example. By observing her at work on the Supreme Court every day, we learned the importance of practicing law with candor and integrity, of seeking principled solutions rather than result-oriented ones, and of being unfailingly collegial and generous towards one’s colleagues. The legal profession is doubtless better for having so many former clerks of Justice Ginsburg’s in it, striving to live up to her example.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the DVF Awards in February 2020
Fifteen years after clerking for Justice Ginsburg, I’m now more conscious of—and grateful for—her previous illustrious career as an advocate. At a time when women at the podium were a rarity, Justice Ginsburg argued repeatedly before the Supreme Court, prevailing in numerous path-marking cases that established women’s equality under the law. She helped prove that women could argue and win the big cases. Every time I stand at the podium to present argument, I think of Justice Ginsburg, and I hope to make her proud.
Ginger Anders is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Munger, Tolles & Olson. She clerked for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2004 and served for eight years in the Office of the Solicitor General, which represents the United States before the Supreme Court.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.
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