Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Former Clerk On What Made the Late Justice So 'Notorious'

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Annie Werner
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Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Wilson - Getty Images


Amanda Tyler couldn’t have been more excited to clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the summer of 1999. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, she didn’t yet know how much the justice would impact her life—and how close the two would become.

“It was a very challenging year in the beginning, because it was the first time she was diagnosed with cancer and she had just had surgery and begun treatment within a week of the start of the term,” says Tyler, now a professor at Berkeley Law. “There were precedents of justices not sitting, and everyone just assumed that was what she would do. But nobody really understood just how committed she was to the work.”

Tyler, who was the first one in chambers, got a call from the justice on the first day of term: “Amanda, go down to the chief’s chambers and tell them I’m coming.”

More than 20 years later, Tyler and Ginsburg collaborated on the justice’s final book, submitted for publication just three weeks before she passed from complications of pancreatic cancer. Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life's Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union is a riveting collection of opinions, arguments, interviews, and speeches that the pair selected to best capture Ginsburg’s legacy.

Photo credit: Courtesy
Photo credit: Courtesy

If you don’t think you’d be interested in reading a collection of legal and judicial materials, you haven’t read Justice Ginsburg. Her dissents are juicy, her language precise. There’s a reason she’s the #NotoriousRBG. For a personality that’s been meme-fied almost to the point of abstraction in the national consciousness, the book succeeds in grounding Ginsburg’s legacy in her actual work, from her days as a lawyer for the ACLU to some of her last public remarks.

In a year when the global pandemic has eroded gender equality more than ever, Justice, Justice is as much about filling gaps in American women’s history as it is about underscoring the impact Ginsburg made on sex-based discrimination in the law and beyond. What’s most striking in reading Ginsburg’s work is that in an effort to change the law, she was really changing the way people thought about society, whether it was unequal pay or subsections of the Voting Rights Act. The law was simply her weapon of choice.

“My hope is that those who read the materials she and I assembled here will be inspired to join her in this enormously important work,” says Tyler, who has been grateful for the chance to process the loss of Justice Ginsburg while finishing the book in her absence.

Below, Tyler tells just how the book came into being, what makes RBG so notorious, and some of the biggest life lessons she learned from getting to know Justice Ginsburg over the course of two decades.

How did this book come into being?

The conversation that this book is based on is a conversation between the justice and I in honor of one of Justice Ginsburg’s dear friends, Herma Hill Kay. Herma was a great scholar, the first woman dean of Berkeley Law. She also had been Justice Ginsburg’s co-author on the very first casebook that was written that basically defined the field of sex discrimination in the law in the early ‘70s. Herma had recently passed and had written a book that chronicled the first American women law professors, and Justice Ginsburg had written the introduction for that book, yet no publisher was touching it.

It was just so important to Justice Ginsburg to see Herma’s book published. So, part of the story of our book is that we said, “Well, we’d really like our book to be part of a series, and we’d like Herma’s book to be the first in the series, and ours to be the second.” And the press went for it.

Justice Ginsburg was very invested in relationships, and I think that that’s something that those of us who were lucky enough to know her really appreciate about her, and that’s what made losing her so hard for us. We grieved with the rest of the country about the loss of her after all that she had done for the country. But we also grieved personally, because having a relationship with her was so special.

Speaking of relationships, there’s a lot about Justice Ginsburg’s husband in the book—what drew you to include that as a centerpiece of the book?

I was so lucky to be able to clerk for her when Marty was alive, and I can’t even begin to describe what a joy it was to watch those two interact, and to see, really, all that a marriage could be. It was a great love affair. There’s just no other way to put it. They were head-over-heels in love with one another, and by the time I clerked for her, I think they’d been married close to 50 years at that point.

He was her biggest champion, her biggest supporter, her biggest fan, and the opposite was true as well. She was his biggest fan, and supporter, and booster, and I think that there’s a lot to learn from studying their relationship about all that a partnership can be, and how a man can be wildly successful in his own right, and cheer on his wildly-successful wife at the same time. It was really something special to watch.

What do you think makes Justice Ginsburg such a rockstar over other Supreme Court justices? There’s not exactly a #NotoriousElenaKagan meme going around, for example.

I think it had a lot to do with the timing of her Shelby County dissent [Ed. note: Shelby vs. Holder was a landmark decision that struck down important provisions in the Voting Rights Act of 1965]. It’s a magnificent dissent and I’m so proud that it’s in the book. I think the timing of when it came down and how powerfully she wrote it had a big impact—she was a remarkably exceptional writer, extremely precise with language. A thing that she worked with her clerks on in earnest was teaching us to be precise, to write powerfully, never to use four words when you can use three. And that dissent is just really so powerfully written. It’s a tour de force, and I think at the moment when it came down, people were looking for hope, and looking for a voice for their concerns about the direction the country was going in, and she gave a voice to that. I think that’s where the “Notorious RBG” came from.

That led to people learning more about her and this incredible career she had as an advocate. How very quietly and very carefully, step-by-step, she had really changed the makeup of our society, and that the defining feature of who she was as a justice was about opening up opportunities so that everyone could live to their full human potential.

Those of us who clerked for her, we knew how amazing she was before, and it was just really exciting to watch the American public sort of catch up with us.

Reading the book, it really struck me how granular and slow the pace of change was for a lot of the stuff she worked on—one case she worked on is simply about the statute of limitations on filing a complaint for pay discrimination—how do you think she found the patience and motivation to keep going?

I think this is a really important component to her legacy that is enormously timely. She understood that change takes time, and she was patient, and it was hard. When you want change, when you see injustice in your time, it’s hard to be patient. But her life is a lesson about perseverance, and that if you keep doing the work, you can see change eventually. And that’s not to say that there aren’t some things that we shouldn’t fight to change right away. But it is to say that if you’re disappointed and you don’t achieve what you want as quickly as you would like, stay the course, and keep fighting.

The book references very briefly a case called Vorchheimer, and it’s a really important back story to her legacy. When she was an advocate in the ‘70s, she was part of a lawsuit in which there was a challenge brought to separate high schools for boys and girls in Philadelphia for so-called gifted students. The facilities were drastically different; the offerings were drastically different. The high school for the girls was terribly inferior to the one that was offered for the boys, and a lawsuit was brought challenging this as violating equal protection. She and the ACLU were effectively booted off mid-case, and the court wound up dividing equally on the case, which meant that the lower-court decision upholding the separate high schools stood.

But 20 years later, she kept doing the work, and then, the anti-discrimination VMI [Virginia Military Institute] case crosses her desk when she’s at the Supreme Court. The opinion initially was offered to Justice O’Connor, and Justice O’Connor very graciously said, “No, I think Justice Ginsburg should write this one.”

It was the culmination of a 20-year campaign on her part to see that in the educational setting, offerings are equal for men and women. There aren’t a lot of people that would be willing to wait 20 years for that, but that is now the law of the land, thankfully.

After working with her so closely and being so intimately familiar with her legacy, how did it feel to continue working on the book after she passed and to have the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation rushed through against her wishes?

It was so special to get to work with her again, 20 years after being her clerk, to talk with her about her legacy, talk with her about the different parts of her life, and work with her in mapping out how she would want to be remembered. She knew as we were working on this that there weren’t many days left, and she was facing tremendous medical challenges. And yet, as had always been the case, her work was a refuge of sorts.

Working on it afterward, in the midst of so much going on, it was painful. But trying to preserve her legacy and keep people talking about her legacy, which is such an important legacy working to make ours a better, more just society—that’s been a labor of love for me. To keep her alive, in a sense—I want people to keep talking about her. I want people to continue to be inspired by her, because she is so inspiring.

Is there anything in the book you didn’t include that you wish you had?

I now wish I had suggested we include the remarks that she gave at Justice Scalia’s memorial. I did not feel that I could add it afterward without her blessing, but I think one of the reasons I would’ve included it is that I think that their friendship is worth celebrating. It was the real deal, and in her remarks at his memorial, she talked about not just their friendship, but how, as working colleagues who disagreed on just about everything, they made each other better.

She tells the story there of how he gave her an early read of his draft dissent in VMI, and how she then went back to her draft and worked on it some more, to respond to his arguments. And she says it made her draft better, and I think that that’s something worth highlighting, that sometimes when we engage with those with whom we disagree, we might learn something. We might see things from a different perspective, and we might, in fact, improve our own approach. And maybe, just maybe, you can bring them along.

What are some of your biggest takeaways from your time working with Justice Ginsburg?

Oh, countless lessons I learned from her. She didn’t just teach me or any of her clerks about the law. She taught us a lot about life as well. Live a balanced life was one. She loved the opera. She loved the arts. She always made time for those joys, and I think that a lesson from that is to make sure that you’re not one-dimensional.

She went out of her way to do nice things. When I interviewed with her for the job, she offered me the job on the spot. I was so lucky and so happy, and when I called my grandparents to tell them about it—neither of them had gone to college—and I said, “I’ve got a clerkship with Justice Ginsburg!” And there was a long pause, a silence. They had no idea who she was. So, after I convinced them it was a real lawyer job, and explained to them who Justice Ginsburg was, my grandmother said, “My goodness, she sounds incredible, I’m so proud that you will work with her.” And I went home, and I wrote the justice a long letter, and I recounted to her this story about my grandparents, and she wrote me back, and she included a letter, separately, addressed to my grandmother. I mean, that had a huge impact for my grandmother. She was so proud. That was just the type of person Justice Ginsburg was.

She didn’t sit around and tell war stories. She didn’t beat her chest and brag. She just put her head down and did the work. It’s not about the glory. It's about making the world a better place, and then enjoying the fruits of that with everyone else.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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