Ruth Bader Ginsburg Shaped Me As a Lawyer and Father

For as seriously as she took the work, the justice knew that family always came first. Immediately following my clerkship, I spent a period at home with my daughter, trying to make up for all those late nights at the Court. The justice was thrilled when she learned that I was planning to be a stay-at-home dad for a while. She believed fervently that her life’s work of furthering equality in the law could never be realized without equality at home as well.

When I contemplated writing publicly about my experiences, which I ended up doing for The Atlantic, she was my biggest supporter. The justice knew the power of example—that if you live your own life according to your principles, others will follow. Her example has given permission to millions of women and men—including myself—to break free from artificial barriers that hold them back from fully pursuing all their identities, as mothers and fathers, breadwinners and caretakers. She wanted me to join her in carrying that mission forward.

I will be eternally grateful that my daughters—Caitlyn and her little sister, Cora— had the chance to know the justice and be inspired by her life and career. Yet her inspiration extends much further than those whom fate blessed with her personal presence in our lives. During my time at the Court, the Notorious RBG as a pop-culture phenomenon began to reach its crescendo. My co-clerks and I would race to be the first to show her the latest viral video or meme featuring her. She was tickled by these diversions, but seemed silently aware of the deeply serious undercurrent that lay behind her newfound fame.

Maybe in a truly equal world, we wouldn’t need heroes like Justice Ginsburg. But we still do. To so many little girls and boys, she has served, and will forever continue to serve, as a shining example of the pragmatic idealism that has shaped this nation since its founding. A force that propels us to reach beyond ourselves to envision a better future, and to work tirelessly to make that vision a reality.

For my part, she will always be standing over my shoulder, encouraging me to be a better father and an equal partner. And she will always be the exacting yet supportive boss, inspiring me to work harder until the job is done right.

The last time I spoke with the justice in person was in the courtroom last fall, during my first oral argument at the Supreme Court. As I waited for my turn to speak, I was more nervous than I had ever been, uncertain whether I had what it took to meet the moment. But when I looked up at the bench, I saw the justice gazing down at me with a warm, reassuring smile that told me everything was going to be all right.

In recent days, I’ve received many heartfelt messages of condolence. For so many of us who loved her dearly, the feeling of personal loss is incalculable. But at the same time, it heartens me to know that the loss is one we all bear together. Justice Ginsburg’s legacy belongs to all of us. It buoys me to see people inspired to carry forward her vision of a more equal and just society. She would have expected no less. And if she were still here, she’d reassure us with a smile and a hug, and tell us to get to work.

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Ryan Park is an attorney based in Durham, North Carolina, and a former law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justices David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

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