My Friend and Boss, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

My time working for the justice shaped me as both a lawyer and a father.

Several family photos show the author, his wife, his daughter, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Courtesy of Ryan Park / The Atlantic

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an intimidating boss. Though small in stature and quiet in demeanor, she was a legendary lawyer and jurist who was fiercely devoted to her work. And she never lost sight of the principles—and the people—that made that work worth doing.

I served as a law clerk for Justice Ginsburg during the Supreme Court’s 2013 term. It was the privilege of a lifetime, yet something I will never feel that I quite deserved. In the days since she died, I’ve felt my mind drifting back to that time, the glimpses it gave me into her life, and how it shaped my own.

The justice was 50 years my senior. Even into her ninth decade, she demanded the world of herself, and expected no less from us. When the boss is willing to work from dusk until dawn, there are no excuses. You do whatever it takes to get the job done, and to not let her down.

I’ll never forget when I felt my pocket buzz on Thanksgiving night at my sister’s house. I pulled out my phone and read the screen with alarm: “RBG cell.” I bolted to the bathroom and spent the next half hour being grilled by the justice with my heart racing, desperately longing for my notes, scrambling to recall the technical details of a case to be argued the following week. She was an elegant woman of iron will. And she used that inner strength to move mountains.

But no matter how seriously she took the work, she was always joyful in her play. Dull afternoons were livened with heaping bowls of frozen yogurt from the Court cafeteria, consumed beside a crackling fire in her chambers. She once invited us to watch 42, the movie about Jackie Robinson’s life, and nearly glowed as she told us of watching Robinson play baseball while growing up in Brooklyn. Birthdays at work were celebrated with cupcakes and prosecco, with the clerks probing for more tales from her past. Especially for those of us who clerked for the justice in her advanced years, these stories took on an almost mystical quality, a connection to a strange and ancient world where rights we take for granted today still had to be fought for.

Before I was even born, she was a trailblazing advocate for gender equality who had begun to weave her vision into the Constitution: that you can’t be fired for becoming pregnant. That women as well as men are entitled to serve on juries. That a widowed father has the same right to government benefits to care for a child as a widowed mother. That the law can’t assume that a woman’s place is in the home, and that a man’s is not.

Outside the courtroom, the justice never lost sight of the personal relationships that give life meaning. One Saturday during my clerkship, she took us to a performance of Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera centered on her surprising friendship with Antonin Scalia, her dueling conservative counterpart on the Court. (I surely absorbed more opera that year than I will in the rest of my years combined.) My co-clerks and I sat behind the odd couple, watching her and Nino whisper and guffaw as their operatic selves engaged in spirited debate through song. One evening, Justice Ginsburg invited a renowned Maltese tenor to perform at the Court. From my office, near the justices’ ornate dining room, I labored over a memo late into the night as the wine flowed next door and the tenor’s voice, sometimes accompanied by Nino’s, echoed through the marble hallways.

The author’s daughter with her Lego RBG figure (Courtesy of Ryan Park)

Another late night in her office, we worked to wrap up edits to a draft opinion set for release the following day. When the opinion finally rang pitch-perfect, she put her pencil down, beckoned me to her computer, and nudged the mouse in my direction. Like any doting grandmother, she wanted help viewing the photos from a recent trip to France that her granddaughter had posted online.

She also cared deeply for her clerks, and our children as well. The surest way to melt the justice’s heart was to bring a grandclerk in for a visit. My daughter was barely three months old when I started the job. They first met on Halloween, with Caitlyn dressed as a pig, crawling around the chambers floor. They hit it off from the start, and Caitlyn grew up before her adoring eyes. I will always remember watching the justice kneel on the floor to play with a Lego figurine of RBG that Caitlyn had plucked from her office mantel—and later wrapping Caitlyn’s hand around the toy as a parting gift.

For as seriously as she took the work, the justice knew that family always came first. Immediately following my clerkship, I spent a period at home with my daughter, trying to make up for all those late nights at the Court. The justice was thrilled when she learned that I was planning to be a stay-at-home dad for a while. She believed fervently that her life’s work of furthering equality in the law could never be realized without equality at home as well.

When I contemplated writing publicly about my experiences, which I ended up doing for The Atlantic, she was my biggest supporter. The justice knew the power of example—that if you live your own life according to your principles, others will follow. Her example has given permission to millions of women and men—including myself—to break free from artificial barriers that hold them back from fully pursuing all their identities, as mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers. She wanted me to join her in carrying that mission forward.

I will be eternally grateful that my daughters—Caitlyn and her little sister, Cora— had the chance to know the justice and be inspired by her life and career. Yet her inspiration extends much further than those whom fate blessed with her personal presence in our lives. During my time at the Court, the Notorious RBG as a pop-culture phenomenon began to reach its crescendo. My co-clerks and I would race to be the first to show her the latest viral video or meme featuring her. She was tickled by these diversions, but seemed silently aware of the deeply serious undercurrent that lay behind her newfound fame.

Maybe in a truly equal world, we wouldn’t need heroes like Justice Ginsburg. But we still do. To so many little girls and boys, she has served, and will forever continue to serve, as a shining example of the pragmatic idealism that has shaped this nation since its founding. A force that propels us to reach beyond ourselves to envision a better future, and to work tirelessly to make that vision a reality.

For my part, she will always be standing over my shoulder, encouraging me to be a better father and an equal partner. And she will always be the exacting yet supportive boss, inspiring me to work harder until the job is done right.

The last time I spoke with the justice in person was in the courtroom last fall, during my first oral argument at the Supreme Court. As I waited for my turn to speak, I was more nervous than I had ever been, uncertain whether I had what it took to meet the moment. But when I looked up at the bench, I saw the justice gazing down at me with a warm, reassuring smile that told me everything was going to be all right.

In recent days, I’ve received many heartfelt messages of condolence. For so many of us who loved her dearly, the feeling of personal loss is incalculable. But at the same time, it heartens me to know that the loss is one we all bear together. Justice Ginsburg’s legacy belongs to all of us. It buoys me to see people inspired to carry forward her vision of a more equal and just society. She would have expected no less. And if she were still here, she’d reassure us with a smile and a hug, and tell us to get to work.