Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

A personal, hopeful view of the enduring legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The images were striking. Dozens of former law clerks of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dressed in black, silently awaiting their former boss on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday morning.

For them, it's not just a loss of a ground-breaking jurist and cultural icon. It's the loss of a mentor and friend.

University of Washington Law Professor Liz Porter is in Washington, D.C. today. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2002.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Professor Porter, thanks for joining us, and my condolences on your loss. What was it like being at the court this morning?

On one hand, it's strange how after 20 years coming back to the court feels familiar, like a house I used to live in, a place that I know, a part of my life. But, at the same time, it was, of course, a really sad kind of homecoming. It feels like it will never feel the same again. It's just a strange experience. And the pandemic, of course, was another element to that today, which made it feel even more like a dream, maybe like a nightmare.

The Senate majority leader says he plans on having a vote on a nominee, on the open seat on the court, sometime this year. I'm wondering how you're feeling about the future of the court, and what could happen with your former bosses seat?

If you'd asked me this question five years ago, eight years ago, 10 years ago, I think I would have felt very disappointed if the Justice had been replaced by a new Justice who shared none of her views, but I think I wouldn't have felt despair about that. I would have felt secure in the institution of the Supreme Court. And I would have felt that over time, looking at the long game, the court would continue to be a vital, important and overall beneficial institution in our society. Now, I just don't know. I just feel less certain. I just, I just don't know.

That must be quite an unsettling feeling.

It is unsettling, and not just for me as an individual. I feel like everyone is unsettled in many ways at the same time right now. It's like waves and uncertainty.

You wrote an essay recently about Justice Ginsburg for Crosscut, after her death. You wrote that one of the lessons was that she taught you not to panic. Can you explain that?

She just was a person who maintained focus, and got the things done in life that she wanted to get done. Her single-minded focus was a real asset to her. Right now, the way that the world is, sometimes we can confuse reading about things, and keeping up to date with things and knowing the latest ins and outs of things, with actually doing things that have an impact. It's not a mistake that Justice Ginsburg would ever make. And I quite admire it.

You also wrote about aspiring to her sense of collegiality and style, for instance. You write very warmly about that. What kind of example did she set simply by how she did her job?

On a deeper level, that I don't know that I can explain well, her commitment to the institution of the Supreme Court, and to its legitimacy, and to a true sense of collegiality, among the justices, and between the justices and the employees, really permeated the court. And, among the many things that we've lost this week, I hope we haven't lost that.

What will Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s legacy be for you?

One of the things that I try to keep in mind about the Justice’s legacy is that things really do get better. When the Justice entered Harvard Law School, I think there were nine women in her class, and the dean berated the women for having taken the place of a man -- so the story goes. And now, we're welcoming the first year class to the University of Washington School of Law this week, and there are more women in that class than men.

Even though the politics of the world seem fairly grim and polarized, a majority of the court just last June, issued a decision holding that Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination on the basis of sex also includes discrimination against transgender people, and non-binary people. So, things continue to improve. The world has changed, partly because of her work, as an individual, as a lawyer, as a judge, as a feminist. And there's hope.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg will lie in repose at the Supreme Court Wednesday and Thursday. Professor Porter and her fellow former clerks will be standing vigil. On Friday, Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes the first woman in the history of the United States to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

Why you can trust KUOW