RBG’s Virtues: A Former Clerk’s Perspective

In September, I joined my fellow members of Justice Ginsburg’s law clerk family at the Supreme Court to honor her memory. As we stood sentinel on the marble steps waiting for the Justice to arrive at the Court one last time, I reflected on the Justice’s legacy and the many ways her example has shaped us as lawyers and people. Two of the Justice’s virtues have been particularly meaningful to me.

The first virtue—civility among disagreement—was obvious to me within days of my arrival at the Court in the summer of 2001. The wounds of Bush v. Gore were still fresh throughout the building, and the environment was toxic. Law clerks were divided into bifurcated and warring camps that did not interact and could not rise above the bitter disputes they had endured.

Not so Justice Ginsburg. She believed more fervently than anyone that the Court had made a grievous mistake and diminished its legitimacy, but she did not let the fury she must have felt further undermine the institution. She continued to dine, to talk, to exchange ideas—even to joke and socialize—with her colleagues whose views she wholly rejected. The Justice knew that while acting out of indignation or rage might assuage her own personal feelings, what mattered far more was the preservation of the Supreme Court and its ability to function effectively.

The second lesson—courage to follow one’s conscience—is the defining feature of Justice Ginsburg’s life and legacy. That courage earned her a seat on the Supreme Court. Law clerks witnessed it each and every day, in ways large and small. It is easy to forget, amid the commemorations of her life, that the Justice’s decisions earned her not only adulation but ire, even in the form of death threats. Often she reached decisions that angered her supporters. Each of us can recount times that the Justice summoned the courage to join an opinion that clashed with her own political views because principle and precedent required it. She recognized that non-partisan decisions were what gave the Court its authority, and she would never have jeopardized that fundamental interest simply to prevail on an issue or to amass power for a political end.

Justice Ginsburg lived these virtues and encouraged them in others. Two years ago, after the death of my other mentor in the law—my father—the Justice wrote my family a note that ended with a gentle exhortation: “May all of you carry on in good health, doing what you can to help repair tears in our local, State, and national communities. Isn’t that just what your father would have willed.”

Particularly over the last year, when the tears in our communities have been so deep, I have drawn inspiration and comfort from those words. Justice Ginsburg willed for all of us the courage to engage our neighbors, our colleagues, and even our adversaries with a spirit of civility that respects differences and seeks to preserve the institutions that make civil engagement possible. As we turn the page into 2021, I will be recommitting to doing my best to honor those virtues.

Dave O’Neil is a partner in Debevoise’s D.C. office. He clerked for Justice Ginsburg during the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2001-2002 term.

Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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