It started the day before. The Other Law Clerk in the law office where I was working at the time began mildly complaining to the air that he didn’t want to go to this thing at his school the next day with “some Supreme Court Justice.” I turned around at looked at him. “There’s going to be a speech or something? Who’re they bringing in?”
Other Law Clerk: Justice Ginsburg
Me: Justice Ginsburg? Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Really?
Other Law Clerk: Yeah. I mean, I would go if it was Scalia, but Ginsburg – I just don’t care. I don’t want to go, but apparently it’s a big deal.
[even stunned-er silence]
Me: I’ll go! I want to go! [laughs, smiles] I’m not kidding. [serious face]
Other Law Clerk printed me his ticket, and I stared at it in disbelieving joy for a few minutes. I tried not to get my hopes up about it too much – the ticket wasn’t in my name, and I didn’t know how strict security would be – but I was elated nonetheless. Turns out I needn’t have worried, since they simply scanned the bar code on the ticket and let me in without so much as glancing at the name.
I found a seat in an auditorium filled with impossibly young-looking law students (so young! Am I really that old that they all appear like children to me?), faculty, and a few members of the interested general population. There was one 12-year old boy there with his mom, and he was pretty excited. He rehearsed the question he hoped to ask the Justice during the Q&A session while we waited for her to appear. (Adorable. He got to ask his question, by the way, which I don’t remember anymore, and he positively glowed under the attention of the Justice.)
A door opened to the left of the stage, and Justice Ginsburg, accompanied by important individuals from the University of Minnesota, stepped out. The moment I saw her, tears sprang to my eyes. Here was someone who has devoted her life to the law and to service, and has actually succeeded in making the world better by her efforts. I felt overwhelmed to even be standing in the same room. Everyone in the auditorium leapt to their feet and clapped. And clapped, and clapped, and clapped. I don’t remember how it stopped; it seemed it was going to go on forever.
The talk was delightful. It was set as an informal conversation between Justice Ginsburg and one of the near-legend-status professors at the U of M law school. Justice Ginsburg’s voice is soft, and the microphone she wore was set as loud as it could be without delivering terrible feedback. Even so, it was difficult to hear her at times. Whenever she spoke, every individual in that auditorium held their bodies in suspension, listening intently, unwilling to lose even a syllable of what Justice Ginsburg would say to the small noises of life. When the professor spoke, that was when we adjusted our posture, cleared our throats, relaxed a bit into our chairs. Justice Ginsburg was charming and brilliant and casually poised.
At the end, the professor announced there would be a reception in a nearby hall, and folks filed out quickly. I stood, wondering if I’d rather go get some free, mediocre food or go home, and idly watched the stage as I did so. Suddenly, I realized that this was a classroom auditorium, not a performance auditorium. Nothing stood between members of the audience and those on the “stage.” Justice Ginsburg was, in fact, talking with those who were lucky enough to sit up front and now were milling around, waiting for the crowd to clear out. I wasn’t that far back. I could go down there and shake her hand!
Letting the power of my fangirl adoration lead the way, I dashed down the aisle and up to the stage. Two students were talking with the Justice, and I waited the polite Minnesotan distance of three steps behind them, suppressing my urge to get closer. They turned to go, and Justice Ginsburg turned her attention to me. She looked at me. I was maybe five steps away from her. I smiled, the unrestrained ear-to-ear grin of an idiot. I panic-hesitated – should I just walk up to her? What’s the etiquette? What do I say? Ohmygod, what do I say to her? – but then screwed up my courage and stepped forward. One step away, now. I stuck out my hand to introduce myself. And just as I did, Justice Ginsburg’s handler stepped between us, took the Justice by the arm, and whisked her away. “Time to go,” she announced.
I stood there, staring after the small, retreating back of Justice Ginsburg, not having any idea what feelings were swirling in the maelstrom inside me. I was overwrought, actually weak in the knees. I was so excited to have even come close to meeting her, and yet disappointed to have ultimately failed in the attempt. I had brought with me a print of my favorite picture of Justice Ginsburg, and a Sharpie, in the deranged hope that I might find a way to get her to sign it. I never really believed it would happen, but then when I got so close…let me just say it’s a weird thing to be crestfallen and elated at the same time.
I decided to go to the reception, on the off chance that Justice Ginsburg would be there, and I could get my photo of her signed. I scanned the place for her, thoroughly, three times, and gave up. I walked right past her on my way out the door, and turned around when I recognized her handler. I chased her back inside, and watched from a less-than-polite distance as the President of the University enthroned her at a table and took her food and drink order (“A white wine spritzer, some red wine, and a glass of water. And some crackers or something, I suppose.”). The moment he stepped away, I stepped up and took his place at her side. AT. HER. SIDE.
I knelt next to her chair, putting us roughly on eye level, and proceeded to burst into tears. What word did I use to describe my emotional state earlier? Overwrought? Yeah, I was definitely that. I stammered something about having just graduated law school, but it was almost impossible to talk around the lump in my throat. I gave up and just blubbered. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t – it’s just – you’re my HERO.” She just smiled at me, so kindly.
Not knowing what else to say next, I put my folder on the table in front of her and opened it up to reveal that image of her. “This is my favorite photograph in all the world,” I said. “It means so much to me.” She couldn’t possibly know why the image was such a sentimental one, since I was completely squandering my opportunity to actually communicate with her and could barely manage to squeak out some half-formed non-sequitors, but she got the gist when I handed her a Sharpie. “My name is Amy,” I said.
Taking the cap off the marker, she started to chat. “Oh, this photo! I remember when it was taken. I was writing a brief –” She was interrupted by the return of the University President with her snack, and an apology for over-promising about the wine, which he assured her would be present at dinner later. She nodded a thanks and returned her attention to my photo. Left-handed, she wrote slowly and deliberately, appearing to concentrate on each mark so as not to smudge it. I watched her write with nearly unbearable love and excitement.
She wished me luck in my career, and I reluctantly, awkwardly, took my leave. Justice Ginsburg is every kind of wonderful you can imagine. Our country is better off because of her work over the years, both as advocate and judge, and I feel like the luckiest person in it to have spent a few precious moments with her.