For 35 years, the St. Mary’s University School of Law has conducted an international summer study program at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. San Antonio’s law students have been fortunate over the years to learn from distinguished visiting professors and jurists who supplement our St. Mary’s faculty. Among the many legal luminaries who have contributed to the education of our students have been eight members of the Supreme Court of the United States, along with judges from international tribunals and the highest European court.
In physical stature, all of these honored guests towered over Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, our Distinguished Visiting Jurist in 1995. She had agreed to present a series of lectures during the period her husband, Professor Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, was offering a course in international taxation. Marty was a renowned tax professor at Georgetown University, considered by many to be the preeminent tax professor in the country. He also was widely reputed to be an excellent cook with a lively sense of humor. I can attest to the latter.
During their stay in Innsbruck, my colleague, Professor of Law Vincent Johnson, and I were directing the program we had co-founded in the mid-’80s. It fell to us to make arrangements for our guest faculty, including Marty and the “Honorable Ruth,” as he called her. Following our usual pattern, we reserved a nice suite in a highly regarded small luxury hotel in the village of Igls, the site on two occasions of events held during the Winter Olympics. Situated above the valley floor where Innsbruck lies, Igls is idyllic, surrounded by majestic mountains, emerald pastures and dense forests.
I also was living in Igls that summer, not in the luxury hotel, but in a far more modest apartment. We had rented a very nice car for the Ginsburgs to use during their stay, one that Marty was quite enthusiastic about driving. The original plan was for Marty to drive Honorable Ruth down the mountain to the university each morning for her lecture followed by his tax class.
To ensure that the Ginsburgs would have no trouble with directions to the university, I offered to stop by their hotel and let them follow me until they had the hang of Innsbruck. When I arrived at the hotel on the first day of classes, I found the Ginsburgs ready to go. Before we could leave, though, Justice Ginsburg pulled me aside and asked if she could ride with me and let Marty follow us in the rental. Of course, I was happy with that arrangement, but a bit puzzled why she would prefer my company.
It turned out that Justice Ginsburg, who clearly adored Marty, didn’t trust him not to get lost on the way to the university. Afraid she would be late for her lecture, she thought it safer to ride with me. Needless to say, I was delighted to have the pleasure of accompanying this jurist I so admired, even though her preference was fueled more by my sense of direction than my sparkling conversational skills.
On that first trip “down the mountain,” I discovered that Justice Ginsburg was the quiet, reserved person that she appeared to be in public. As is often the case, she made up for a lack of volume by careful listening and occasional comments and interjections of real value. I found that I had to think, drive and speak enough for both of us on that first commute. However, my impression was that my companion was actually interested in knowing more about me and about Austria, St. Mary’s and our program.
I assumed Marty would be Justice Ginsburg’s driver after that first day, but she asked if she could continue riding with me, always with Marty following close behind. I don’t think it was because she lacked confidence in her lifelong mate, but because she had a voracious appetite for knowledge, a thirst for learning about people and places. We rode together every day of her stay in Innsbruck.
During that time, I spent many hours with the Ginsburgs – at lunches and dinners, receptions, social events, hiking, excursions, and in informal conversation. The Justice always sat in Marty’s tax class after her lecture finished, although she reportedly nodded off sometimes during particularly technical discussions of tax law.
Professor Johnson and I arranged for Justice Ginsburg to go horseback riding in the mountains one afternoon. She was a capable equestrian, but we were more than a little nervous watching her mount a very tall and “spirited” horse, riding English style as she and the Austrians preferred. As we watched her riding down the trail with a guide, she looked like a small bird perched on a large and powerful animal. And yet, she clearly was in control of her mount.
I cherished the private time I had with Justice Ginsburg, especially our conversations in the car. Among other things, we talked about opportunities for women. We both had daughters, and my wife was a young lawyer at the beginning of her career. Knowing what a towering figure in law this diminutive woman beside me was, I scarcely had the temerity to venture a thought about feminism or women’s rights, but she encouraged me and shared her experiences with me in a way that enriched my life and deepened my understanding.
The year after our summer program, when I had been nominated for membership in the prestigious American Law Institute, Justice Ginsburg sent a handwritten note to the membership committee of the Institute endorsing my nomination. I am still humbled by that honor and by her generosity.
When I think of Justice Ginsburg, especially in the aftermath of her passing, I recall that personal and professional generosity, her willingness to share thoughts with a young law professor from Texas and to share her knowledge of the law with St. Mary’s Law students to enrich our future leaders. And I think of that tiny woman atop that spirited horse, firmly in command.