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Law Professor Reflects On Lifelong Friendship With Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

As the second woman to ever serve on the United States Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg left behind an impressive legacy both as a champion for justice and a political icon.

Few know this better than Stephen F. Ross, a Penn State law professor who clerked for Ginsburg in her first year on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 1980.

Ross, alongside dozens of Ginsburg’s former clerks, traveled to the Supreme Court last week to honor her life. Ginsburg, 87, died from metastatic pancreatic cancer complications on September 18.

On the steps of the Supreme Court, Ross watched over her casket for about 15 minutes while Ginsburg lied in repose for two days. Her former clerks stood by in pairs, switching off in 15-minute intervals for the duration of the ceremony.

Ross (left) stands on the steps of the Supreme Court

Coincidentally, Ross signed up for the same time slot as a friend who’d followed him in clerking for Ginsburg and later a U.S. Senator. He said the opportunity to join colleagues in Washington was an incredibly special honor.

“Just being able to visit with people who had shared the experience [of clerking for Ginsburg] was supportive and moving,” Ross said. “It was very moving to stand out there and do that honor.”

Ross added Ginsburg’s many ceremonies, including becoming the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, offered an opportunity to reflect on her impact on both his life and society at large.

“I wouldn’t be a professor if it wasn’t for her mentorship and guidance,” Ross said. “Her insights and approaches have shaped me in countless ways.”

Ross recalled Ginsburg wanted to hire him because he’d already worked at the Federal Trade Commission for a year, unlike typical clerks who’d look for work straight out of law school.

She selected him personally due to his expertise in administrative law — an integral component of the D.C. circuit Ginsburg didn’t have extensive experience with at the time. Ross considered her more of an expert in civil procedure, constitutional law, and women’s rights.

“She had a great work ethic, although as we saw in documentaries with her crazy law school schedule, she stays up very late at night doing work, and therefore is not a morning person,” Ross recalled. “Unbelievably precise writer — my writing really improved from that period. She had keen attention to doing justice for the parties.”

While working together, Ross said he admired Ginsburg’s quiet demeanor and sense of humor.

Throughout her career, many referred to Ginsburg as a “knee jerk liberal” — someone who identifies as a liberal and typically reacts “predictably and emotionally” to certain events. However, Ross feels she embodied a different side to that term.

“She was a knee jerk liberal in a more literal sense,” Ross said. “Her initial reflex was to be liberal. But then, she actually got down to the work.”

Ross added her work showed him law isn’t as political as people may think. Although justices may be appointed as “liberals” or “conservatives,” he feels that goes out the window once they sit on the bench.

“One of the things, especially she taught me because of her background, is there’s an awful lot of law that judges just don’t have an opinion on,” Ross said. “They are going to decide it according to the neutral law because they just don’t have an opinion on it!”

Ross recalled working alongside Ginsburg on a case involving a dispute before the Federal Maritime Commission between shippers and ocean carriers. Although Ginsburg had no opinion on whether the court should rule in favor of either trade, Ross admired how she dutifully “applied the principles” and came to objective conclusions.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court for nearly 30 years. In doing so, she unexpectedly became a national icon ubiquitously known for championing women’s rights and civil liberties.

However, Ross certainly wasn’t surprised by her rise to stardom.

“When you’re in law, she was really famous. She was already an icon,” Ross said. “This is sort of like asking somebody who writes for Rolling Stone magazine about some musician who later becomes really famous as a cultural icon. I’m not really in a position to understand why people become cultural icons, but within the community of law, she was already famous when she went on the bench.”

Ross commented Ginsburg inspired an entire generation of women. He recalled one colleague whom he overlapped with at the court attended Columbia Law School solely because Ginsburg taught and studied there, graduating at the top of her class in 1959.

Outside of her chambers, Ginsburg led a lively social life, according to Ross. She’d often host parties and social events for her friends and colleagues at her home, including two engagement parties for some of her clerks.

“She’s not a sports fan, and I’m a huge sports fan, so that was a limit [to our relationship],” Ross said. “The one sports conversation we had was when I mentioned the [Los Angeles] Dodgers and she made disparaging remarks because they left her native Brooklyn!”

Ginsburg even officiated Ross’ wedding in 2015. Unsurprisingly, he said she did an incredible job.

“She couldn’t have been more gracious. She even ad-libbed some stuff,” Ross said. “She sat through a receiving line of 160 people because everybody wanted to meet her and have their picture taken with her. She understood her celebrity and was very generous with it.”

Looking back on her life, Ross hopes students will be inspired by how Ginsburg navigated obstacles and overcame challenges to open doors for others.

“Ginsburg couldn’t get a job despite being one of the top students from Harvard Law School and the Columbia Law School again,” Ross said. “She likes to say she had ‘three strikes’: She was a woman, she was Jewish, and she was a mother. I hope she is an inspiration for those who still face obstacles because of who they are, that they can overcome the obstacles.”

Ross recalled Ginsburg often heard from her mother that anger “was a waste of emotion” and gets in the way of being persuasive. He hopes people can apply that mentality to their daily lives and become more tolerant and understanding.

“Her goal was always to be persuasive. Throughout her career, she encountered great success at persuading others to come along, and not necessarily be views that she would share,” Ross said. “I think that’s a really important lesson. I think she was an object on how to get something done and persuade people whose fundamental values are completely different from yours.”

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt proudly served as Onward State’s managing editor for two years until graduating from Penn State in May 2022. Now, he’s off in the real world doing real things. Send him an email ([email protected]) or follow him on Twitter (@mattdisanto_) to stay in touch.

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