The young lawyers who scored Ginsburg’s last full-term clerkship saw her through a historic pandemic and, ultimately, some of her final days on the court. They describe their late boss as a woman full of drive and joy, whose famous conviction went uninterrupted by one health crisis that gripped the world and another one that transpired quietly inside her own body.
Even while she was in and out of the hospital, Ginsburg lived up to her reputation as a stickler for clear and concise prose. When her clerks handed in drafts of opinions, they knew that the justice would fill the margins with notes before she called them into her office for hours (and often days) of reviews. Come March, the same process unfolded over the phone.
Barnard-Yanni recalled dialing Ginsburg’s house last spring to hear her son on the line yell “Mom! Alyssa is on the phone!”
“Wow, this is kind of hilarious,” Barnard-Yanni remembered thinking that night. “She is a normal person.”
Susan Pelletier, who clerked for Ginsburg from July 2019 to July 2020, spent many nights quarantined at home, immersed in a painstaking editing process with the justice.
“Instead of sitting next to her and going word-by-word, it was over the phone,” Pelletier said. “So I spent a lot of evenings talking to the justice, which isn’t something I expected to happen to me.”
As her health waned, Ginsburg’s clerks said that her legal command remained as steadfast as ever.
“For many justices, what clerks write can be a first look. But our boss often looked at the case before we did and finished the review before we started,” Barnard-Yanni said.
And as she was known to do throughout her career, Ginsburg would almost always work late into the night.
It was more than her doggedness that bookended her life. The late icon’s notable appreciation for art and dedication to family were also with her in her final days.
Ginsburg’s clerks said opera singers visited her office throughout the winter. And she kept a bonded cake in her office topped with two sugar figurines: one of herself in a robe with glasses and another of her late husband, Marty, dressed like a chef. Ginsburg would talk to her clerks often about how they had a true marriage of equals.
“To see someone really be able to succeed while having that rich and full of a life, it is a great reminder,” Pelletier said. “You don’t need to give up in order to succeed, you need to really invest in all the pieces of your life.”
The young lawyers ended their clerkship with a Zoom in late July. For many of them, it would be the last time they saw their boss.
Appearing over their computer screens, Ginsburg wore her signature blazer and scrunchie to bid them farewell.