For University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Matthew Tokson, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was more than an iconic trailblazer who forever changed the landscape of equal rights on her road to earning a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
She was a trusted mentor, who provided clerks like Tokson with valuable feedback on legal writing line by line —an opportunity that prepared Tokson well for his own legal career when serving as a clerk to Ginsburg during the court’s 2011-12 term.
And Ginsburg was a grandmother, a caring example who adored her family and treated the aspiring young lawyers who eagerly sought to learn from her with respect while also imploring them to maintain the highest standards in their work.
“She taught me so much, particularly about legal writing, she made me a better lawyer in so many ways. She had very high standards and she was, I think, in her early days, thought to be tough on her clerks. By the time I got there that was no longer the case, I think she was very warm to us from the start. I suspect that it was always very much out of love. She certainly, again, was very supportive to us,” said Tokson.
“I remember working on something with her, and she sat me down individually and went over every line everything and said, ‘This should be like this, this should be like that.’ And through that process, that’s just the best way to learn. It was like getting an individual session with one of the most brilliant legal writers of our time. And I deeply appreciated that she would spend the time to do something like that,” he added.
Tokson was among those who shared memories of his encounters with Ginsburg during a vigil at the College of Law on Sept. 19, a day after the beloved justice who inspired multiple generations with her brilliant legal mind died at age 87.
Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner organized the impromptu vigil at the request of law students, some who enrolled in law school with dreams to follow in Ginsburg’s footsteps to one day change the world.
The community needed a place to come together to grieve, she noted.
“I’ve been asked a lot about what I think her legacy is and what I encourage all of us to try to do as we remember her is to work, like she did, to move the legal profession forward and to make our community a better place. We’re so incredibly thankful for her service, not just to the U.S. Supreme Court, but also to our nation,” said Kronk Warner.
Besides Tokson, Professor RonNell Andersen Jones, a former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, also shared stories of meeting the soft-spoken New York native nicknamed Notorious RBG.
Andersen Jones recounted towering above Ginsburg at a social event for Supreme Court clerks, feeling awkward at conversing with Ginsburg, who stood just 5 foot 1 inches tall. Nevertheless, meeting one of Andersen Jones’ heroes that year was a thrill.
“She modeled for me, and for so many of the women at the Court that year, what it meant to own your professional space and to give your life to something noble and good. With her remarkable Marty, whom we also loved, she modeled what it meant to be in a truly equal partnership, defined by your own needs, but not by the outside expectations that people had of what your needs should be. She modeled what it meant to think clearly, and to write precisely, and to respect the rule of law for the fragile miraculous thing that it is,” said Andersen Jones.
She remembered the artwork in Ginsburg’s chambers quoted the Book of Deuteronomy.
“It read, ‘Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue.’ And she did this ceaselessly, unflaggingly, indefatigably, until literally her dying day,” said Andersen Jones. “She penned some of the most significant judicial opinions of all time, and the most significant for the recognition of the right to sex gender-based equal protection under the law. Indeed, if she’d never served a single day on the Supreme Court, she still would have been the star of my con law class, a jurisprudential luminary, because her earlier role as the savviest, most gifted litigator of the sex-gender equality movement was so powerfully transformative, so fiercely strategic, so cleverly crafted for its moment in time,” she said.
So many at the ULaw vigil for Ginsburg felt as if they knew her, even though they’d never met her.
Taylor Stephensen Beal, president of the Student Bar Association, noted that Ginsburg’s death is another trial in a year that has already brought difficulties with a pandemic and civil unrest. Ginsburg is a model for perseverance and overcoming hardship, she said.
“Justice Ginsburg has inspired generations of law students and lawyers across the country. She’s been an incredibly pivotal figure and feminist role model in my life. When I was feeling intimidated and doubtful about applying to law school several years ago, it was her life story that emboldened me to chase after my goals, regardless of how impossible they seemed to me at the time,” said Beal.
“She taught us that if a woman who was born in the early 1930s could overcome adversity after adversity, from blatant gender discrimination to her beloved Marty suffering from cancer while they were both parents in law school, that we too can get through obstacles on our paths to our hopes and dreams. She was a fighter from the beginning, and she was no stranger to hardship.”
For many, Ginsburg’s legacy paved the way for their own journey to careers in the law. Her memory won’t be forgotten.
“ While the loss of her is unmeasurable and the cloud that it casts at this already deeply troubled time is dark, and the grief that we feel at this moment is palpable, I think the truest tribute that we can pay to this life well lived is to live well our own lives in the law,” said Andersen Jones.
“To keep helping, to keep explaining what is wrong with the doors that are still closed, to find satisfaction in hard work and in change-making, to say with her same relentlessness, justice, justice, shall we pursue. May her memory be a blessing to all people who treasure the promises of our constitution. And may we all find the resolve, despite our weariness and heartache, and fatigue, to dig in like she did. To show up and to speak up, and to never ever give up. Thank you, RBG. Thank you for standing so very tall.”