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Harvard Law School honors Ginsburg

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surprised the Harvard Law School Class of 2011 with an unexpected appearance.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg surprised the Harvard Law School Class of 2011 with an unexpected appearance.L. Barry Hetherington

During her first year as the sole woman on the US Supreme Court in 2006, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a foreword for a biography of the 19th-century lawyer Belva Ann Lockwood and presented the book to a new law clerk in her chambers.

On Thursday, the clerk, Daphna Renan, now a professor at Harvard Law School, highlighted the foreword as an example of how Ginsburg broke barriers for women while simultaneously honoring her predecessors in the fight for equality.

“Justice Ginsburg was a giant in the law, a luminary, and a leader, as you’ve heard, but she was always ... keenly aware of those who paved the way for her even as she trained her sights on how she could better pave it for others,” Renan said.

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She delivered the remarks during a virtual Harvard Law School event honoring Ginsburg, who died last Friday.

Ginsburg studied at Harvard Law from 1956 to 1958, but moved to New York City with family after her husband finished his legal studies a year ahead of her. Harvard Law refused her request to earn a degree while completing her education at Columbia Law School, where she graduated. In 2011, Harvard presented her with an honorary degree.

Harvard Law’s current dean, John F. Manning, said the institution regrets the discrimination Ginsburg endured on campus.

“It is hard to imagine a more consequential life, a life of greater meaning, and more lasting impact. And Justice Ginsburg did all of this while carrying the heavy weight imposed by discrimination,” he said. “To our eternal regret, she encountered it here at Harvard Law School.”

The virtual event included tributes from Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and Harvard Law professors Vicki Jackson, Martha Minow, and Michael Klarman. Klarman clerked for Ginsburg during the early 1980s when she was a federal appeals court judge in Washington, D.C.

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Brown-Nagin’s remarks explored what Ginsburg’s death means to the civil rights movement and comparisons between Ginsburg and the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve on the Supreme Court.

Beyond fighting for women’s rights, Brown-Nagin said, Ginsburg had a deep understanding of racial discrimination and poured that insight into cases dealing with race.

She cited Ginsburg’s dissent in a 1995 school desegregation case in Missouri in which the justice wrote it was too soon to curtail efforts to combat racial segregation given the state’s history of racial inequality.

“The Court stresses that the present remedial programs have been in place for seven years,” Ginsburg wrote. “But compared to more than two centuries of firmly entrenched official discrimination, the experience with the desegregation remedies ordered by the [lower court] has been evanescent.”

Ginsburg was, Brown-Nagin said, a “tremendous intellect, a courageous human being, and a giant of the law.”

“What has been lost in Ginsburg’s passing is a viewpoint that is steeped in the experience of naked discrimination — experiences that gave the justice insight to and skepticism of practices that mark, that exclude, that disadvantage people on the basis of identity, stripping them of equal dignity and depriving them of equal opportunity,” she said.

Jackson reflected on a example of Ginsburg living by her words: “As long as one lives, one can learn.”

In 2017, Ginsburg officiated at the wedding of Lauren Coyle and Jeffrey Rosen, who recounted the story in his 2019 book about the justice.

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In the book “Conversations with RBG,” Rosen wrote about how Ginsburg edited the draft vows, replacing “you may kiss the bride” — even though she had used it many times — with “You may embrace each other for the first kiss of your marriage.”

“Justice Ginsburg’s ideas and values will, I hope, live on,” Jackson said. “Her life shows that each of us can continue to learn as we work to bring more equal justice, more fairness under law to all.”

Renan, the final speaker to pay tribute to Ginsburg, offered colorful memories of her time working for the justice 14 years ago. She recalled the red pen Ginsburg used for editing and said that “judicial writing for RBG was an act of reverence.”

Ginsburg often worked late into the night, Renan said, causing fatigue that made her nod off once or twice during oral arguments delivered during morning hours. The media took note and speculated about Ginsburg’s health, Renan said.

“To remedy this, my co-clerks and I gave her a gift. A mug that said, ‘I’m not tired. You’re just boring,'” Renan said.

“And for the rest of the year, RBG would take this mug brimming with her strongly brewed, always black coffee on the bench with her to argument,” she said.

The final note Ginsburg wrote to Renan was written on the justice’s personal stationery, embossed with the words: "The Notorious RBG. You can’t spell truth without Ruth.”

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Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.