• Ideas

I Was One of Justice Ginsburg’s First Law Clerks. The Experience Shaped My Career and My Marriage

3 minute read
Margo Schlanger is a professor of law at the University of Michigan

Justice Ginsburg’s death is a blow to all Americans because she was a warrior for equality under the law. Sometimes she won her battles—most notably writing the majority opinion in the 1996 case ending Virginia’s exclusion of women from the Virginia Military Institute based on impermissible stereotyping about women’s capabilities, and in the 1999 case insisting that unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes unlawful discrimination. Unfortunately, she didn’t always win (hence her apt description as one of the Court’s historical great dissenters). Either way, her opinions and her “Notorious RBG” rock-star turn inspired millions.

I was lucky enough to work for Justice Ginsburg as one of her first Supreme Court law clerks, from 1993 to 1995. It was an incredible, unrepeatable privilege to serve close-up as she started her Supreme Court tenure. I remember her first phone call to me after her Senate confirmation (by vote of 96-3), when she stumbled over her new title—she was used to being Judge Ginsburg, but had to adjust to being the Justice. Obviously, she flourished and we were all the beneficiaries.

I remember, too, the life lessons I absorbed. Personally, she and her husband Marty demonstrated the joys of a marriage of professional and personal equals. (Marty was perhaps the best tax lawyer in America.) My now-husband clerked for Justice Ginsburg two years later—he and I met between our two clerkships because of our shared connection to the Justice, so we owe her that, too. Sam and I count ourselves beyond fortunate to have had the model of the Ginsburgs’ marriage as we created our own.

Professionally, as an astoundingly smart lawyer, Justice Ginsburg expected her clerks to imitate a few of her work habits: to always, every single time, do our best work; to work really hard; to care about both procedural fairness and substantive outcomes. I acquired other, more targeted, professional lessons too. Before she was a judge, Justice Ginsburg was simultaneously a civil rights lawyer and a professor, and she was great at both. As a law professor, I have tried to replicate that joint commitment—to improving the law and the lives of civil rights plaintiffs, while producing humane and worthwhile scholarship, while teaching and mentoring students. I can’t hope to achieve as much as she did, but like her Supreme Court opinions, her personal example was the kind of North Star everyone needs.

RBG’s crucial contribution to America was as a stalwart, eloquent fighter for expanding the scope of “We the People,” pushing the United States to be its best self. Whether she wrote in majority or in dissent, her voice on the Supreme Court is irreplaceable. But we deserve a successor to her office who shares that passion and commitment.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.