Editor’s Note: Neil S. Siegel is the David W. Ichel Professor of Law and Professor of Political Science at Duke Law School. He writes, teaches, and advises about US constitutional law and politics. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
I was very fortunate to serve as one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s law clerks during the US Supreme Court’s October 2003 term. I was also blessed by her presence in my life – and in the lives of my daughters – in the years following my clerkship. She always found time when we asked. She always asked how we were doing, particularly during difficult times.
The justice was also a friend to my law school and university. She visited early in my teaching career and for seven years straight joined me in DC for a public conversation about law and life – the highlight of the summer program I run there, and a tradition that ended only with the pandemic and the illness that was to be her last.
In February 2020, she offered her final gift to Duke Law School by joining a panel of distinguished judges and me at a DC event marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment and celebrating women’s advancement in the law.
Of all of the questions that I have been asked about Ginsburg over the past several days, one in particular fills my mind: “What do you most want the world to know about her?”
I am not moved to answer this question by detailing, as others have in recent days, the work to which she devoted her life, first as a lawyer and later as a judge–the work of ensuring that government can execute its responsibilities to keep the American people safe and provide for the general welfare; of protecting the precious right to vote; and, especially, of including within our Constitution’s embrace groups who long did not count in constituting We the People.
Instead, what I most want the world to know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg is what I sense the world – America in particular – most needs to know about her right now.
First, she understood more than anyone that it was never about her, it was always and only about the work. She did not spare my feelings when I got the work wrong early in my clerkship. But when she had trained me sufficiently that I was occasionally able to free her from error, she was nothing but grateful. No bruised ego, no assertion of dominance or authority. All that mattered was the work – getting it right and keeping it tight, as she liked to say.
She was the first to say that many others did the work before her and alongside her, and that she was incredibly fortunate to have been a lawyer at a time when American society was open to recognizing women’s “equal citizenship stature” – a phrase that she often used to express what I have called her basic vision of the Constitution. She was also the first to say that this work would continue after she was gone if there were sufficient political and legal will to continue it. She did not think that we needed her to continue the work.
Neither should we.
I also want Americans who are grief-stricken and afraid to know about the justice’s optimism, even in private. When in recent years I would occasionally express to her my feelings of gloom and doom, given our divided nation and dysfunctional politics, she would explain her reasons for optimism and invite me to consider sharing it.
I really do not think that she would be ravaged by fear for the future right now. She would get back to work and redouble her efforts.
We should as well.
We don’t all need to be lawyers or judges or politicians. For example, we can vote for people who have proven themselves to be people of decency and character, and who care about people who have not been cared about nearly enough. We can encourage other Americans to vote. We can speak out in our communities and march in the streets when government officials deny fellow Americans constitutional rights and equal citizenship. Those of us who are financially privileged can contribute to political campaigns that we believe in.
Most of all, I most want to remind people of the strength of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I have never been in the presence of anyone stronger. I am not talking about big muscles (though she worked out!) or bravado.
I am talking about real strength: the kind of strength that enables one to survive a loss that shatters the heart; the kind that allows one to juggle being a mother to a young child, a full-time law student in a school with very few women, and a caregiver to a husband who has cancer; or that enables one to work late at night and into the early hours of the morning, driven by a profound sense of purpose.
After what turned out to be our last public conversation, the justice and I were having dinner at a DC restaurant we both love; it was part of our tradition. I shared with her that I was separated and getting divorced. She saw that I was shaken.
When dinner was over and she stood to leave, she looked at me – into me – with her steely gaze. She said simply and clearly: “Neil, you will get through this, like you have gotten through everything else in your life.” At that moment, I felt my own strength. I was determined to prove her right about me.
Get our free weekly newsletter
I imagine her right now standing taller, looking down on all of us with that same steely gaze and strength, filled with meaning and purpose. “America,” she is saying, “you will get through this, like you have gotten through everything else in the life of this nation.”
I am not as optimistic or as strong as Ruth Bader Ginsburg was. Few people are. But I will draw from her strength and redouble my efforts to prove her right about our country.
We all should do that – as a gift to her, to everyone we love, and to ourselves.