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'She was still making history in her passing'

In posthumously published book, Ruth Bader Ginsburg puts own stamp on her legacy

A personally chosen collection of favorite legal briefs, US Supreme Court opinions and dissents, and recent speeches aim to show how Jewish jurist fought for a more perfect union

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, talks with filmmaker David Grubin about his PBS series, 'The Jewish Americans,' on January 10, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first Jewish woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court, talks with filmmaker David Grubin about his PBS series, 'The Jewish Americans,' on January 10, 2008 in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned to her Jewish roots for the title of her final book, published posthumously in March 2021. “Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue” takes its name from a passage in the Torah (Deuteronomy 16:20), which captures the essence of her life’s work.

“This calling drove Justice Ginsburg in all she did,” writes co-author Amanda L. Tyler in the book’s afterword.

Following Ginsburg’s death on September 18, 2020, the torch was passed to Tyler to share this last piece of the trailblazing feminist and esteemed liberal jurist’s legacy with the world.

Tyler, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, helped Ginsburg shape the book based on a public conversation between them at an October 2019 Berkeley event honoring the late Herma Hill Kay. Kay, Berkeley Law’s first woman dean, co-authored with Ginsburg the first case book on gender discrimination in American law in 1974.

‘Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life’s Work Fighting For a More Perfect Union’ by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda L. Tyler (University of California Press)

“We had a lot of fun putting the book together. Ultimately everything was [Ginsburg’s] decision in compiling the story of her career as it unfolded, and as it related back to our conversation,” said Tyler, who clerked for Ginsburg at the Supreme Court 1999-2000.

The conversation’s transcript appears early in the book. In it, we read in Ginsburg’s own words about the trajectory of her life from childhood all the way through to her time on the Supreme Court. She speaks about her family and her extraordinary marriage to Martin (Marty) Ginsburg, who was her greatest cheerleader. She also talks about balancing a career with raising children and starting a career at a time when women were not welcome in the legal profession. She is frank about the discrimination she faced as a woman and as a Jew. 

The rest of the book includes three oral arguments made by Ginsburg as an advocate for gender equality. Among them is the brief she and her attorney husband jointly filed in Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, the pathmarking 1971 case featured in the 2018 film drama,“On the Basis of Sex,” about Ginsburg’s early legal career.

Ginsburg also shares her four favorite bench announcements and opinions from her 27 years on the Supreme Court. Interestingly, three of them are dissenting opinions. They deal with cases of gender-based discrimination, voter rights suppression, and the denial of contraceptive health coverage for employees on the part of privately held for-profit corporations.

From left to right: Former Supreme Court Judges Miriam Naor and Esther Hayut; co-founder and chairman of Genesis Prize Foundation Stan Polovets; Supreme Court Justice and Genesis Lifetime Achievement Award Honoree, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; and former presidents of Israeli Supreme Court Aaron Barak and Dorit Beinich, at the Genesis Award ceremony in Tel Aviv, July 4, 2018. (Eran Lamm/Lens Productions)

The final section of the book contains three of Ginsburg’s last speeches, including her remarks upon receiving the Genesis Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in Tel Aviv on July 4, 2018, in which she spoke about the influence on her of female Jewish leaders who came before her.

The Times of Israel recently spoke with Tyler about the new book, and about what she gained from her longtime friendship with Ginsburg.

Justice Ginsburg published an autobiography titled, “In My Own Words” in 2016. How does this book differ from that?

“In My Own Words,” is in some respects similar to this one, but it was much more voluminous. We tried to consciously create this book in a way so that someone who is not a trained lawyer, not interested in reading an exhaustive account, or not necessarily even an American would pick this up and get a full picture of her in a very accessible way. I hope we have accomplished that. I hope people will come away from it knowing what made her tick and remembering her for her greatest achievements and contributions. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Steve Petteway/ Collection of the Supreme Court of the US)

What was Justice Ginsburg’s thought process behind choosing the four opinions included in the book — three of them dissents?

It was very clear to her from the outset that these were the four opinions she wanted. Initially, it was surprising to me that she included three dissents. Why would you include three dissents and only one opinion, where you are writing and speaking for the court?

But I realized that there is a method to this. She is conveying that although she lost in these cases, she still feels she was right… She thought these cases were really important. She wanted people to read these dissents and keep fighting these fights. 

Take Shelby County v. Holder. She wanted people to keep fighting for the Voting Rights Act, and keep fighting more generally so that voting rights are protected in our country, and people are not discriminated against based on race when it comes to voting. 

I think she viewed the choice of opinions not just in terms of how she hoped to be remembered, but also as a sort of charge to those of us who are still here to continue the work about which she was so passionate.

Tell me about the choice of title for this book.

Justice Ginsburg had a piece of art with the quote “Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue” [Deuteronomy 16:20] in English and Hebrew on the wall of her chambers. It was a guiding principle in her life. It’s something that connects back to her Jewish identity, but even more broadly, it was part of her teaching that in this life you should pursue justice and make it a central tenet of who you are. It seemed a natural title for the book.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen in her chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington, July 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

What did you learn from Justice Ginsburg as her clerk?

She taught me so much. She was an extraordinary human being and role model. She taught me to be meticulous and to take great care in choosing my words. She taught me to think about the Court’s work in a very important light — that there were real people’s lives and livelihoods at stake with every case. You could never understand the issues before the Court in a particular case without thinking through the ripple effects of the Court’s decisions on those lives.

She also taught how important the role was of those who worked at the Court, and how it meant to work very hard. She had an incredible work ethic. She was fighting cancer the year I clerked for her, and yet she worked so hard and was so committed to her service. That is obviously something we also saw in the decades after that. It impressed upon me what a privilege and special honor it is to be in public service, and how important it always is to do your very best. She pushed her clerks to rise to be their very best, but she never asked of us more than she asked of herself. She celebrated us when we did good work, which I very much appreciated and really liked. 

Prof. Amanda Tyler and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at event at George Washington University Law School, 2005 (Courtesy of Amanda L. Tyler)

She also taught us how the law should be a vehicle for opportunity for everyone. It should be a force for good that is inclusive and brings everyone along. The story of the American Constitution, she liked to say, was of a story that grew ever more inclusive, bringing under its protection those who had been excluded earlier in American history. Continuing that work was at the heart of who she was and what she taught us.

And what did you learn from her on the personal side?

She taught me how to be a good person, how to be kind and thoughtful. She taught me how to lift up the voices of others, and how to live a rich and full life. 

She also taught us the importance of finding a partner who was very much in your corner and celebrated you and promoted you. She liked to talk about [her husband] Marty as her biggest booster. One could see that by observing their grand love affair. She really lived this very successful life because she had a partner in all things. 

She was so joyful and taught me the importance of living a full and happy life, because our lives are precious and we only have so long. It is important to make a contribution with what you do, but also to have a family, if that is something that will bring you fulfillment and happiness, and to have other interests as well. 

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburge and Prof. Amanda Tyler in conversation during the inaugural Herma Hill Kay Memorial Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, October 21, 2019. (Courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

I understand that she stayed in close touch with her clerks over the years.

She kept up with all her clerks. She celebrated every milestone. When a child was born you received a t-shirt with the SCOTUS seal on it with “RBG grandclerk.” It was a small gesture, but it was so kind and celebratory and wonderful. I like to joke that I almost had more kids just so I could get more t-shirts. Every marriage, every promotion, every book — there was always a note celebrating it. She made the time.

She was also someone who reached out when she found out you were going through a difficult time. There was one occasion when I was going through an experience she had been through, and she wrote a very powerful letter that said you can’t see it now, but down the line you will be grateful for having come through this, you will be stronger for it. That was a very special gesture that was enormously helpful to me in a very difficult period of my life.

The cover of ‘Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’ (HarperCollins/via JTA)

What did she make of the fact that she became a pop culture icon?

At first she was confused, but then she was amused. As it evolved, it was ‘OK let’s run with it.’ It wasn’t that she liked the attention, but she realized over time was that this Notorious RBG thing was a celebration by people around the world of the ideas she promoted and positions she defended, and so she embraced it She would carry “I Dissent” tote bags.  

You and Justice Ginsburg’s other clerks served as honorary pallbearers for her as she lay in repose at the Supreme Court for 48 hours. You personally served on the last vigil before her casket departed the Court for the final time to lie in state at the Capitol. What went through your heart and mind in those hours?

It was very hard. Every aspect of that period was difficult for all of us. She had given us so much and changed all of our lives. She changed my life, I can say that. She was such an important figure on the Supreme Court. She had done so much, accomplished so much, fought for such important ideals and principles.

I knew having worked with her over the course of the last year of her life how hard she was fighting to live and keep working. So to be there in that moment when she was to leave the Court for the final time, knowing that was the end of the story and that she had not been able to hold on — and knowing how incredibly hard she had tried — was devastating. It was heartbreaking. 

She then went to lie in state at the US Capitol. She was the first woman, and the first Jewish person to do so. As hard and as horrible as the timing of the loss was, she was still making history in her passing.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in state in Statuary Hall of the US Capitol on September 25, 2020. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

Speaking of timing, did you ever ask the Justice why she did not retire during the Obama administration?

We never talked about that. She gave public statements in which she said that she felt she was still at full steam and still had a contribution to make, so why should she retire?

She was deeply devoted to the position because to her it was service. It wasn’t about being a Supreme Court justice and walking into a room and being the center of attention. She was actually a very shy person and didn’t like the limelight. She loved serving the country that gave her the opportunities to rise from being a child of immigrants and the daughter of a bookkeeper in [New York’s] garment district to become a Supreme Court justice. She had to give back. She was hardwired for service. That’s what kept her going and made it very hard for her to contemplate walking away. 

It would have been better if the 2016 election had gone differently. I know that she was intending to retire if it had. 

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