Ruth Bader Ginsburg Remembered: An Interview with Amanda Tyler

January 31, 2022   •   By Brachah Goykadosh

ABOUT A YEAR ago, I spoke with Professor Amanda Tyler about her then-forthcoming book with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Our conversation about Justice Ginsburg — who had died less than half a year before we spoke — was emotional. For me, our conversation was also enlightening, providing what felt like an inside perspective. Throughout our conversation — which took place over Zoom — I admired a drawing of Justice Ginsburg depicted as a superhero. The drawing was behind Professor Tyler on the Zoom tile on my screen. I asked her about it. She told me that her students had brought these coloring pages of Justice Ginsburg as a superhero to her attention, her daughter had colored in the pages, and she had sent a picture of the coloring to Justice Ginsburg. In response, Justice Ginsburg wrote Professor Tyler’s daughter a note saying, “I love your picture of me.” Being a superhero — and there is no doubt Justice Ginsburg is a superhero — is more than fighting battles, winning wars, or enacting change. Being a superhero is also about inspiring others, lifting up those around you with you. During our discussion — and even reading this now, nearly one year later — I was struck by Justice Ginsburg’s hope in the future of our country and the power of the Constitution. This book, Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue, is not only Justice Ginsburg’s fight for a more perfect union. It is an inspiration to others to fight for a more perfect union — for justice — too.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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BRACHAH GOYKADOSH: Why is the title of the book important?

AMANDA TYLER: The passage “justice, justice thou shalt pursue” comes from Deuteronomy. It is something that Justice Ginsburg had in a piece of art that she hung in her chambers. It was the animating principle that drove everything that she did: living and working for justice. The title of the book continues by referencing her work, fighting for a more perfect union.

If you look at the book, beginning with the introduction where I work through her testimony in her confirmation proceedings, Justice Ginsburg talks about how the preamble of the Constitution charges us all to work for a more perfect union. In the book, you see that theme come up time and again, most principally in her VMI [1] opinion, where she talks about what it means to be working for a more perfect union, being a more inclusive society, and allowing people of whatever their gender to work to fulfill their full human potential.

Then, you see it come up in the final part of the book, which is a speech that Justice Ginsburg gave at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives. She talks in that speech about her family, about the American Dream, about the pride in being a child of immigrants, but also the pride in her country. The most beautiful part of the speech is where she looks at the new Americans in the audience and says: It’s your Constitution too now, and it’s up to you to join me and/or work to make this a more perfect union, a more inclusive and better and more just society.

That’s really what her legacy is all about. I think this connects back to the passage from Deuteronomy and her faith. That’s part of what drove her to serve.

The Constitution seems to have been an illuminating force for Justice Ginsburg. There is a recurrent theme in her interviews about how she believed the Constitution belonged to the people.

Justice Ginsburg taught me that the law can be a force for good: that the Constitution is supposed to evolve, change, and become more inclusive. That is a dominant theme of all that she did, as an advocate and as a judge. For her, it was always important to remember that the cases that came before this high court — this lofty Supreme Court — were about real people. She tried to understand the lived experiences of the broad spectrum of persons whose interests came before the court. She tried to understand how the law works on the ground and to make people’s lives better.

Justice Ginsburg came from working-class background, her mother had been a bookkeeper in the garment district. She had also represented many working-class women early as an advocate. So understanding the experiences of others was easy for her, particularly when she was writing about working-class women as in Ledbetter. [2] Another case where you can see this is the Hobby Lobby dissent, [3] where Justice Ginsburg talks about the importance of providing access to contraception, because she understood how expensive it is to obtain contraception and how for some women simply financially out of reach to get the contraception of choice.

But you also see Justice Ginsburg trying to understand in other cases, even where she had to work a little harder. In her Shelby County dissent, [4] she talks in detail about second-generation barriers that are borne out of racial discrimination, in terms of putting up blockades to voting. Obviously, she had experienced extensive discrimination in her life, but she was not African American in the South. Yet, you read her dissent and you get a sense that she’s really working hard to really understand what the facts are on the ground and what the experiences are of those who are facing these barriers.

I have been trying to think about if there is one word that would describe what you are trying to say. I think the word is “empathy.” Do you agree with that?

I do. There was a conscious effort on her part to understand the challenges and perspectives of other people.

You started your career as Justice Ginsburg’s law clerk and now you have co-written a book. That is an amazing trajectory. What is the evolution of your relationship with Justice Ginsburg?

I consider being hired as Justice Ginsburg’s law clerk one of the best things that has ever happened in my life. It is hard to state what an honor, privilege, and awesome experience it was to be her law clerk. Justice Ginsburg became a huge part of my life.

Justice Ginsburg just taught me so much about law. She taught me about how to be a good writer, which was something that was really important to her. She was ferociously committed to making sure that every word mattered. There was no room or need for excess. She wanted her opinions to be accessible so that someone — even someone not trained to be a lawyer — could pick them up and understand them. It is why I think she was so excited about this book and was picking her very favorite opinions in the hopes that not just lawyers would read them.

Justice Ginsburg taught me a great deal about life. She expected so much of you. She pushed you to rise and be your best. But she was enormously welcoming and took mentoring very seriously. It did not end when you stopped clerking. She kept mentoring, celebrating our milestones, being there for us through difficult times. She had T-shirts made for every grand-clerk. The first time she cited one of my pieces of scholarship, she signed the slip opinion and sent me a complimentary note. I framed it and it is now in my office.

Justice Ginsburg was someone who you could turn to with any number of questions. There is not a single move I have made in my career that I did not consult with her first about. I miss having her here because right now I have some things I would like to ask her advice on.

I was lucky enough to welcome her multiple times at the law schools where I’ve taught, including most recently in fall 2019 for the conversation that’s at the heart of the book.

You are referring to your interview with Justice Ginsburg, after she gave a lecture in memory of her friend and colleague Herma Hill Kay, correct?

Herma had been my colleague at Berkeley Law. She was the first woman dean of Berkeley Law, and a real trailblazer, the 15th woman named to a professorship at an accredited law school. She was trailblazer and a huge figure in the legal academy in her own right. She and Justice Ginsburg met in the late 1960s, early 1970s. The two of them, along with a third co-author, wrote the very first casebook on sex discrimination and basically established this field. Through their work together, they became lifelong friends. Justice Ginsburg wrote the introduction to Herma’s book about the first female law professors in the legal academy. [5]

In the book, there are several pictures of RBG. One is from the Herma Hill Kay lecture. Next to Justice Ginsburg, there is a tote bag. On it, it says, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg makes her mark.” How did Justice Ginsburg become known as a dissenter on the Supreme Court? Was it important to her?

She loved that bag. She made a point when we sat down of ensuring that that side of the bag was facing out. She was very proud of being a dissenter in one sense. Let’s be clear, she would have much preferred to have been writing for the majority. Particularly when she gave bench statements, she really thought the Court was very misguided. But then she came to become this pop icon — the Notorious RBG — in large measure because of her powerful dissents. The attention made it mainstream for others to say, “You are wrong. You are taking us backward. This is the society that I want. This is the society that we need. We need to move forward.”

Why did you choose to include the three dissents in the book?

It was very much Justice Ginsburg’s choice. These are three dissents which I think she felt the Court really had been in the wrong. She liked to say that the dissents are writing for the ages, helpful for a future time. Part of the reason why she included them — if I had to guess — was a hope to continue to draw attention to them in the hope that they would grow to be appreciated. I will share with you that she had a picture in her chambers of Barack Obama signing the Lilly Ledbetter Act with Ledbetter next to him. Justice Ginsburg was very proud of that. She was proud to have Congress and the president care about this issue. So I think that’s also part of the reason why that dissent is in the book. It gave her a great joy to know that the wrong that she called out had been corrected, maybe not for Ledbetter specifically, but for the next victims.

This highlights the importance of the Constitution. If a matter cannot be resolved in the courts, then perhaps it can be resolved in the legislature. Did dissent provide a vehicle for resolving issues?

I think you are absolutely right, in fact, because when I interviewed her, there’s a line where she’s talking about their work in the 1970s, and she said, Where we could promote change by legislation … I think she even says preferably by legislation. The court was the last resort.

I found an op-ed that she co-wrote in the 1970s for The New York Times. [6] She is reacting to the Supreme Court decisions that say pregnancy discrimination is not gender discrimination. That last line of the op-ed is that Congress can change the rule. That is the very same last line, effectively, from Ledbetter.

I think it goes to back the statement she gave in her confirmation testimony where she said, it is not just up to the judges to guard the Constitution, to guard constitutional rights. It is up to all of us.

In the afterword to the book, you start off by writing, “This part of the book was not supposed to exist.” You end the afterword by saying, “It’s now the responsibility of all of us to take up the task of justice.” This is a call to your readers — and it is Justice Ginsburg’s call to her readers — to pursue justice. How can we do that? How can we pursue justice?

It is important to not back down in fighting and working for the society that we want. It is important to not get discouraged. Justice Ginsburg is someone who understood that change takes time. She never gave up. It is a testament to how hopeful she was. I think that is partly why she wanted to include some dissents in the book — she wanted to keep waging those fights. She is not done. She has left us with a roadmap for work that she wants to see continue. She cared passionately about fighting discrimination and opening opportunity. As we well know, and as we saw so powerfully in this last year and are continuing to see, we have so much work to do. I think she would say you cannot allow yourself to give up, you cannot allow yourself to back down or to become discouraged — you must keep doing the work. Her life is emblematic of that. Despite the challenges that she confronted, she kept doing the work. I hope that both the life that she led and what we have preserved in this book will inspire people to take up that mantle — and do that work.

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Brachah Goykadosh is a senior counsel at the New York City Law Department. Previously, she was an adjunct lecturer at City University of New York, where she received the Charles Hirsch Faculty & Staff Award in Fiction. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, among other publications.

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[1] United States v. Virginia, 518 U.S. 515, 116 S. Ct. 2264 (1996).

[2] Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618, 127 S. Ct. 2162 (2007).

[3] Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682, 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014).

[4] Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529, 133 S. Ct. 2612 (2013).

[5] The book by Herma Hill Kay is entitled Paving the Way: The First American Women Law Professors.

[6] See Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Susan Deller Ross, “Pregnancy and Discrimination,” The New York Times (January 25, 1977), https://www.nytimes.com/1977/01/25/archives/pregnancy-anddiscrimination.html.