Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg With One of Her Former Law Clerks

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Q & A Human Rights

Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg With One of Her Former Law Clerks

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser reflects on the legal legacy Ginsburg has built and how to carry that forward: "What would Justice Ginsburg think?"

For more on Ruth Bader Ginsburg, check out our special report.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy is larger than life. Trying to capture it all feels a bit like trying to gather armfuls of sand. It’s a fool’s errand that leaves me chasing all the escaping bits in an effort to make sense of this enormous loss her death creates. 

Prior to her death I had the opportunity to discuss Ginsburg’s legacy with one of her former law clerks, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D). He shared his memories of his time clerking for Ginsburg and how that time shaped him as an advocate. An excerpt if the interview is below, edited for length and clarity.

Phil Weiser: So I worked for Justice Ginsburg from—it would have been September 1995 until August 1996. So we would call it the October 1995 term. It was a unique situation because Justice (Byron) White was retired, hired me, and then lent me out to Justice Ginsburg. He was retired, but she obviously was active and he’d see her, appropriately, as his sort of successor because she is in the seat that he had. 

Rewire.News: Wow. I had no idea that you were originally hired by Justice White. And they are wildly different too, Justice White in his approach to jurisprudence and Justice Ginsburg. 

PW: So it’s interesting because they have more in common than people realize. And what you might look at is a speech that Justice Ginsburg gave at a conference I helped organize honoring Justice White, and she gave that at University of Colorado. The speech she gave noted something that not many have noted, which is she did, I believe, six cases involving sex discrimination or gender discrimination before the Supreme Court, the only justice who voted for it in all six of those cases, Byron White.

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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Rewire.News: What was a typical day like clerking for Justice Ginsburg?

PW: I will say she is the most demanding boss I have ever had. She really, truly expected a high caliber of legal writing, cogent, succinct legal analysis. Every single word and every opinion she’s ever written has been one that has been used purposefully. We did bench memos for all the cases the Supreme Court was hearing. And so I would spend a lot of time researching, writing, rewriting, analyzing issues, and then give her recommendation. And in almost all the cases I would give her this recommendation that I might have worked on for a week, and she’d be like, “Oh yeah, of course.” 

I worked on one case with her involving government contracting, for example, and that was something where she hadn’t been deeply familiar. So I felt like finally I was adding some value. And then in what was a unique situation is there would be a last-minute applications involving prisoners on death row. And so we would stay late at night and we’d give her the updates on what the relevant legal issues were. And that was a unique opportunity cause you’d go into her chambers. And if you were lucky, she would start talking with you about whatever’s on her mind. And there was a lot of those conversations that year I treasured. Probably none more than the question about whether she would sit on the bench during Yom Kippur that year. It was the first year that the Supreme Court was going to sit on Yom Kippur during her time on the bench.

And she’s Jewish, although not someone who observes religion religiously, so Yom Kippur is not a day that she would go to synagogue and observe. She had to think hard about what to do because many people actually asked her and said, “You are a symbol of a Jewish justice. So like Sandy Koufax in years before, would you not work on Yom Kippur?” And ultimately she decided she was not willing to work on Yom Kippur, and the Court later adopted a policy of not ever having sittings on Yom Kippur, and that was again, an interesting glimpse into the sorts of decisions she had to make. And because I’m also Jewish, we talked a bit about her Jewish identity and how that shaped her worldview as well.

Rewire.News: This is such a lovely sort of peek into Justice Ginsburg’s time that we don’t often have. What’s the justice’s work process like? 

PW: She is an incredibly hard worker. And so her work ethic and her commitment to perfection was probably the biggest lasting lesson and impact on me. I also had the experience of working as part of a team. And this is something that many people on the outside might not think about, but I was one of five clerks for Justice Ginsberg that year. And I was one of 38 clerks in the building. That is a group of individuals who are all high achievers. And I had the benefit of learning from all of them, working on cases and wrestling with challenging legal issues.

Rewire.News: So you, as an attorney general, now find yourself in a position where your office is wrestling with sometimes some of the issues that could wind their way up before the Court. I’m thinking of the fact that Colorado has a 22-week abortion ban on its ballot, and that we have had so many fights and continue to over the scope of LGBTQ rights and religious practice and diversity in the state. How did your time working with Justice Ginsburg sort of shape you and your approach to these kinds of issues as an attorney general?

PW: I would say the level of rigor and the level of commitment to the rule of law and our legal system operating in a way that serves the public, and that’s worthy of trust is one of the lessons that I learned from Justice Ginsburg. She was and is a steadfast advocate for justice. I mentioned, she’s not someone who’s religious, but she did very often quote a verse from the Bible, “justice, justice, shall you pursue.” And that is something that I bring to this office, which is a commitment to justice or equality, and fighting for civil rights.

As I look at our agenda and the work we do, that informs and drives me. I also work to elevate the quality of the legal work that we do by asking the question, “What would Justice Ginsburg think?”