A Tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Bencher—March/April 2021

By Michael Li-Ming Wong, Esquire

My justice,

As I undertook the grim duty of “standing vigil” by your casket at the Supreme Court of the United States, I saw and felt my heartache reflected in the faces of throngs of mourners, who had waited many hours in long lines to say farewell to you. Millions of us revere you for your legacy of caring passionately—about your work, your country, and the people around you. Having had the honor of serving as your law clerk, I enjoyed a firsthand view of your passionate caring. And the image that came to mind was a tiny T-shirt.

First, you cared passionately about your craft. I recall toiling on opinions late night after late night, you making multiple rounds of handwritten emendations that I would then implement. It was not unusual to turn dozens of drafts of a single opinion. You scrupulously honed and sculpted each sentence, like a jeweler lovingly polishing a gem to a mirrored shine. No needless word, nor a single jot of overwrought rhetoric, escaped your editing pen. You ensured that every sentence flowed smoothly from the previous one. You chose your words and case citations assiduously. Your final written product sang, like the arias you loved.

You cared passionately about—and so profoundly respected—the rule of law. You loved how legal puzzle pieces interlock, interact, and intersect. In particular, you were always a proceduralist at heart: You knew the rules of procedure like the back of your hand, and you asked your law clerks to remain vigilant about procedural issues such as constitutional standing.

Second, you cared passionately about our nation. You viewed the Constitution as a bulwark against stereotypes that dehumanize complex human beings and reduce them to caricatures. You broke new ground in Equal Protection Clause doctrine, perspicaciously arguing or authoring pathbreaking Supreme Court cases that changed history. You dreamed that society—and the law—would view everyone for whom he or she actually is, free to pursue his or her God-given potential. I pray that your dream of “a more perfect union” will be fully realized someday.

You also warned that courts should not move too hastily. In your opinions and scholarship, you insisted that courts duly respect the other branches of government. Your jurisprudence was one of measured and incremental progress, not sweeping change through muscular interpretations of textual enactments. You counseled judicial patience: Sometimes it was better to leave unripe issues for a later day.

Third, you cared passionately about humans, and you lived a life of passion. You so loved your family: Nothing made your face light up like relating stories about your children and grandchildren. And your marriage to Martin Ginsburg epitomized a loving and equal partnership. May your reunion with Marty be as joyful as I imagine.

And all your law clerks particularly felt your caring and passion during our clerkships, and all the years afterward. Despite the heavy workload, you made time for fun. You hosted birthday parties in your private office, with cakes Marty baked. You and Marty hosted dinners in your home, amusing us with your teasing couple’s banter. You ate very slowly and relished every bite, just as you squeezed the most out of life.

You took me to my very first opera (and my second and my third). You loved sharing your passion about opera, just as you taught us about civil procedure and the Constitution. Having earlier served as a full-time law professor, as a justice you remained a teacher at your core—and you continued teaching with passion.

After I left your employ and moved on with my career as a federal prosecutor, and then law firm partner, I endeavored to emulate your example. Imagining your handwritten annotations on my drafts, I hacked away at needless words, worked on streamlining each sentence and paragraph, and frequently edited late into the night, to the strains of Giacomo Puccini. Always I tried to remember your maxim: “Get it right and keep it tight!”

Your passion for equality in parenthood also influenced me profoundly. Your vision was that mothers and fathers bear equal responsibility for child-rearing. You recounted admonishing your son’s teacher: “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.” Now that I have children, I take pride in being a very hands-on dad. Because of you I am a better parent.

Which brings me to the T-shirt. When my son Caleb was born in 2007, you handwrote a letter to him welcoming him to the world, and you also sent him a tiny T-shirt emblazoned with the Supreme Court logo and the words “RBG GRANDCLERK.” It exemplified your passionate caring that you took the time to custom-design T-shirts for your law clerks’ children, as your way of welcoming them into your extended family.

For my part, I am a child of immigrants hailing from a country that disrespected the rule of law. I am also the first attorney on both sides of my family. It has meant the world for me to navigate my own legal career and life with your guidance and under your tutelage. Your legacy of passionate caring lives on in all of us whose lives you made better, many who, like me, traveled long distances to say farewell to you last September.

I am heartbroken to have to say goodbye to you. I cannot imagine a world without you. You were my boss. You were my mentor. You were my idol. Above all, you were my mother in the law. You always will be my mother in the law.

With love,
Michael Li-Ming Wong

This article originally appeared in the September 27, 2020, edition of The San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.

Michael Li-Ming Wong, Esquire, is a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in San Francisco, California. He served as a law clerk to Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during the 1995–1996 term and was an American Inns of Court Temple Bar Scholar in 1996.
© 2020 Michael Li-Ming Wong, Esq. This article was published with permission in the March/April 2021 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court.