It was an assignment that I relished.
This story speaks volumes about the justice’s courage, tenacity, and commitment to her life’s work. That same commitment carried her through her subsequent battles with cancer, during which she hardly missed a day at the Court. In May, she even participated from her hospital bed in one of the Court’s oral-argument days, held as a teleconference because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was probably reading briefs right up until the very end. (Over this past summer, as she and I exchanged drafts for a book project we were working on, she was still teaching me about the craft of writing—how important precision is, and to never use four words when three will do.)
Read: RBG’s life, in her own words
To her law clerks, “the justice”—as we called her—was so many things: a brilliant, thoughtful, and exceedingly fair jurist; a gifted teacher; someone who through her exacting standards and legendary work ethic brought out the very best in her clerks; a generous mentor who always offered valuable advice; a treasured friend in good times and a source of comfort and tremendous wisdom in the most trying of times; and an inspiring role model at each and every turn. I often think of working for her as akin to playing on a team with Michael Jordan. She made everyone around her rise to their very best.
Being her clerk also could be quite fun. I remember, for example, when she called me into her office to show off her new fanny pack, which she had acquired to hide her portable chemotherapy device. (If memory serves, I believe it was a DKNY number.) She was rather proud of how stylish it was. And I recall later in the term, when I showed her how to shop on the internet. (This was a long time ago, remember.) She was enthralled.
I also remember the times that her extraordinary husband and life partner, Marty, brought cakes for our birthdays, the dinners at their home when Marty cooked for us (which he did expertly), and the time she brought all of us to the opera to see Tosca in the middle of the day. Ever the teacher, she’d told us the story of Tosca the day before, and we’d watched her morph into seemingly another human being as she became animated in a way none of us had ever witnessed, describing and acting out the final dramatic scene in which Tosca is crawling along the stage. The justice absolutely loved the opera, and going with her was a joy. I recall one outing to The Barber of Seville. She sat just slightly behind me, insisting that I have the front seat, because it was my first time seeing this particular opera. During almost every single song, she gripped my shoulders like a vise (she was strong both literally and figuratively) and whispered in my ear, “This is my favorite song!”
A special perk of clerking for her when Marty was still alive was being able to observe firsthand their devotion to each other—seeing all that a marriage and partnership could be. In this area, too, the justice provided great guidance. I recall that one day, shortly after I completed my clerkship, I let slip to her ever-dedicated assistants that I had met someone special. It was only hours later that the phone rang and on the other end was the justice inviting us to dinner. We met with her and Marty at a lovely Washington, D.C., restaurant soon after. The next morning my phone rang anew. “The justice would like to speak to you.” Once she came on the line, I learned that she approved. It was a blessing beyond measure.