To Have Known Her

Remembering a woman who meant the world to those lucky enough to work for her

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda L. Tyler
Courtesy of Amanda L. Tyler

The loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is absolutely devastating. It is, quite obviously, devastating for the country. But for those of us who knew her, it is also personally devastating.

I consider it one of the single greatest privileges and honors of my life to have served as Justice Ginsburg’s law clerk. (Each justice has three to four law clerks who help them screen the Court’s petitions and draft opinions. For those lucky enough to be chosen, the clerkship offers an unparalleled experience to work closely with a brilliant mentor and build a lifelong bond.)

In trying to process this loss, I keep coming back to the passage from Deuteronomy that hung on her chambers’ walls:

“Justice, justice thou shalt pursue.”

This drove the justice in all that she did.

I joined the justice’s chambers as one of her law clerks in the summer of 1999. Unfortunately, my initial excitement soon turned into grave concern, because in the weeks leading up to the formal commencement of the Court’s term, the justice received her first cancer diagnosis. The press simply assumed that her surgery and extensive treatment regimen, begun just days before the start of the term, would keep her home, and that she would listen to recordings of the arguments instead of attending them. As things turned out, I was fortunate enough to be the first person to arrive at her chambers on October 4—the first day of oral arguments—which meant I was the one who answered the phone when the justice called from her car that morning. “Amanda,” she told me, “call the chief’s chambers and make sure he knows I’m coming.”

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.)

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.

During an incredibly challenging time for me a few years later, she reached out again, having been through a similar experience herself. She told me that although I could not see it at the time, one day I would find much to be grateful for in the experience. This was another blessing beyond measure, and those words carried me through some very difficult days.

I loved her, as I know all of her clerks did. It’s unfathomable to think of the world without her in it.

I will close by sharing one last story, because I know how much she loved this one.

At my first Justice Ginsburg law-clerk reunion, I entered the Court building and made my way to one of the two large, elegant conference rooms where these events typically take place. There, I spied the justice, her back to me, talking with several of her clerks. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Marty crossing the room toward her with an enormous grin on his face. He proceeded to put his arm around his wife in what I am sure she took to be a loving embrace. It was that, but it was also part of one of Marty’s legendary practical jokes, for in putting his arm around her, Marty had taped a sign to her back. She wore that sign unwittingly for the balance of the reunion, laughing when she later discovered it.

It read Her Highness.

Now, here is why I love this story so much: It provides a glimpse into the grand love affair and partnership that was at the center of the justice’s life and shows that even the Notorious RBG could take a joke in stride. (And although Marty absolutely loved to give his wife a hard time, no one was more supportive of the justice’s career or more proud of her accomplishments than he was.)

As I reflect now on her legacy, my heart aches for most of the very same reasons that our nation is witnessing a public outpouring of grief. Through her life and work, the justice labored tirelessly to make sure that our Constitution leaves no one behind, that it is everyone’s document and belongs to “We the People.”

That’s why, if I could have summoned the courage to do so, I would have sneaked up behind her at one of our clerk reunions and taped my own sign to her back. It would have read:

RBG: My hero.