Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Clarence Thomas
Justice Ginsburg and I served together as federal judges for almost three decades, beginning on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Though my tenure there was all too brief, I very much enjoyed my time with then-Judge Ginsburg. Early on, she and her husband, Marty, invited Virginia and me to dinner at their home. Of course, Marty was an accomplished chef, and both were a delight to be around. At the court, Judge Ginsburg was simply a joy to work with. Though we sat together only a few times, I found her knowledgeable, thorough, and delightful. Whether we were working jointly in her office on opinion language or I was perusing her line edits on a circulating draft, her deep commitment to the craft of judging always was clear. Also clear, and invariable, was her commitment to working collaboratively and civilly with her colleagues, whether in agreement or disagreement.

Later on, as I completed my second Term on the Supreme Court, then-Judge Ginsburg was nominated to replace Justice Byron White. One of my colleagues asked whether I knew her and whether I thought she would be a good colleague. I immediately responded that she would be an outstanding Justice and a delight to work with. In my short time as a judge and as a member of the Court, I had learned that, unlike elsewhere in the city, disagreement was not the controlling factor in relationships among judges. Character and work ethic were far more important. I expected Judge Ginsburg would be an excellent colleague, and her tenure converted my assessment to a prophecy.

Justice Thomas escorted Justice Ginsburg to her seat at the second Inauguration of President Obama in 2013. She joined the Supreme Court bench in 1993 for his third Term, and they served together for 27 years.

Justice Ginsburg proved to be an outstanding Member of this Court from the beginning to the end of her long tenure. In the early days, the Court’s docket was significantly heavier, and Chief Justice Rehnquist placed a premium on a fast turnaround of opinion assignments. Justice Ginsburg was stellar when it came to this, quickly producing well-written, concise opinions. She was also routinely one of the fastest to respond to her colleagues’ circulating opinions—either joining, asking for changes, or advising that she intended to write or await further writing. In fact, her efficiency became a source of humorous banter as well as a thing of legend.

As could be imagined, Justice Ginsburg expected the rest of us to be equally conscientious in responding to her circulating opinions. From time to time, after a few days had passed and someone had not responded, she would call to quietly and politely ask if the colleague had yet had a chance to look at her opinion. Not once did she come across as discourteous or even pushy, only conscientious and quick. Over the years, there was so much respect for her and the way she did her work that it almost seemed discourteous not to respond to her opinions as soon as possible. It was as though we all owed it to her to reciprocate her conscientiousness. I cannot recall a single colleague who felt burdened by this. In fact, it often served as a source of laughter. When we discussed circulating opinions, she might quietly note that several colleagues had not responded to her opinion that circulated a day or two before. And, because it was her opinion, we would laughingly chide the “tardy” colleague.

Justice Breyer followed Justice Ginsburg on the Court, completing a Court that would be together for over a decade. That was a wonderful Court. It seemed like family in many ways. During those years, Justice Ginsburg and I discovered that her wedding anniversary—June 23—was also my birthday. From that day on, she never failed to send me a card or note on my birthday. I endeavored to do the same for her. Marty would prepare a cake for each of our birthdays, and Justice Ginsburg would be the bearer of these delectable gifts.

Although Justice Ginsburg was normally quiet and controlled, her friends and family could bring out a different side in her. It was obvious that Marty was special, and Justice Ginsburg would light up whenever he was around. His sense of humor was keen, and she seemed to enjoy it as much or more than anyone else, laughing loudly at Marty’s jokes or turns of phrase. It was delightful to see and to be a part of. Justice Scalia, her close friend of many, many years, also could make her laugh and bring broad smiles to her face.

In fact, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg knew each other before either became a judge. Coincidentally, while working at Monsanto Company in St. Louis, I attended a symposium, “The Quest for Equality,” at Washington University in 1978. One portion featured a discussion between Professors Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Thomas Sowell. Among the other notable participants were Professors Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork. None of us could have known then what lay ahead for each of us. Justice Ginsburg and I often disagreed, but at no time during our long tenure together were we disagreeable with each other. She placed a premium on civility and respect. This approach did not lessen her strong convictions, but rather facilitated a respectful environment in which disputes furthered our common enterprise of judging. Whether in agreement or disagreement, exchanges with her invariably sharpened our final work product.

But as outstanding a Justice and colleague as Justice Ginsburg was, what will always stand out for me was her courage during her many health challenges and the death of Marty. Either of these would have been enough to mire most in despondency, or at least compromise one’s ability and desire to work. But not once did these challenges affect her work. Though frail in body, she remained intellectually rigorous and characteristically productive in her work. Despite her strength and perseverance, however, it was profoundly sad to see her physical suffering. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will always have a special place in my heart and memory as a dear and wonderful colleague. It was my good fortune to have shared the bench with her for so many years.

Justice Thomas’s Tribute to Justice Ginsburg will appear in hard copy in the next issue of the Journal of Supreme Court History.