U.S. Supreme Court

Shhh! Former Supreme Court Clerk Dishes on RBG's Goofy Song Dance, CT's Normality

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Boston University law professor Jay Wexler tells all in an essay about his onetime job as a U.S. Supreme Court clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or “RBG” in clerkship speak.

Writing for Salon, Wexler says people underestimated Ginsburg’s height and overestimated her seriousness. She wasn’t so serious as to decline an invitation to dance with audience and cast members during a high school Gilbert and Sullivan production, he recalls. “The sight of a Supreme Court justice on stage twirling around with her hands in the air to a goofy song next to a spinning 6-year-old girl is not one that I can soon forget,” Wexler writes, “no matter how many times I undergo hypnosis.”

Wexler says many are shocked to learn that clerks write a first draft of opinions for their justices, but it’s not really a big deal. “At least in Justice Ginsburg’s chambers, the boss would give us a detailed outline to work from and then, once we turned in our drafts, totally rewrite them,” he recalls.

“The best you could really hope for as a clerk is to get a little pet phrase or goofy word or other quirky something-or-other into the final opinion. For example, there may or may not be one Ginsburg opinion from our term which, when read backward, will summon the demon Beelzebub from the seventh level of hell to earth where he will horribly murder the entire human race. On a more innocuous note, when Justice Anthony Kennedy was assigned to write an opinion concerning the import tariffs applicable to permanent press pants baked in giant pants ovens in Mexico, my co-clerk Bill and I worked very hard to convince the Kennedy clerk working on the case to get the words ‘trousers’ and ‘slacks’ into the final opinion. ‘Trousers’ made it into the U.S. Reports, but ‘slacks’ is absent, although whether this is because the clerk failed to put it in his draft or because Justice Kennedy took it out we cannot be sure.”

Wexler says he’s often asked which justice is most “normal,” and the easy answer is Justice Clarence Thomas. “CT’s jurisprudence may threaten to send the nation back to the middle ages, but he did seem like a genuinely friendly and kind and down-to-earth person, and I say this not just because he laughed at my ‘Why-did-the-guy-get-fired-from-the-orange-juice-factory?-Because-he-couldn’t-concentrate’ joke.”

Hat tip to How Appealing and SCOTUSblog.

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