“No one would give my wife a job,” Marty Ginsburg announced, with fresh outrage, at our first meeting.
That wife was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had graduated law school 50 years earlier without a job, and had become a U.S. Supreme Court judge 15 years before the day her husband and I met. And as fresh as his indignation at the bigots who had refused to employ the top-rated graduate because of her gender was his glee at the final reckoning: Who among those chauvinist men had reached her exalted post?
In 2006, when I came to Washington to join the Office of Tax Policy at the U.S. Treasury Department, I was advised early on to contact Marty Ginsburg, a beloved counselor of all tax lawyers who died June 27 at age 78. Intimidated, it was a while before I found an excuse to e-mail him, but I regretted the wait. As soon as I sent an invitation to have lunch, he accepted with a few original words. Indeed, as I would discover, every e-mail I ever sent he flung back with laconic, concentrated wit.
I had asked Ginsburg to meet me at the only kosher restaurant in Washington, but I had given him the wrong address. He waited outside patiently for me at the location I had provided, in below-freezing weather. He did not reproach me when we finally found each other. I could not understand why such a pre-eminent lawyer who had social intercourse with every important person in the capital would be interested in talking to a young Treasury attorney. But he was.
We talked at that first meal about an astonishing range of subjects: his career, his wife’s career, tax law, his grandchildren. About his wife, Ginsburg shared slews of anecdotes. This he did in public, as well. When he was given a tax award by the American Bar Association, he opened his acceptance speech by saying he had no idea why he was given the award, and then went on to talk about how his wife had landed her Good Job in Washington.
Good jobs were something neither spouse came upon easily. Like Ruth, Marty had had a difficult time finding work after law school. He had gone through cancer treatment during the interviewing period, and so received an offer from only a very small, no-name firm. “Which was that?” I inquired. “Weil Gotshal,” he answered.
Today that illustrious firm employs 1,200 lawyers in 20 offices worldwide. But like his wife, Ginsburg graduated in the 1950s into a legal community that excluded Jews and Catholics, among others. The rejected started their own firms, and, like Weil, many are far larger and more significant than their exclusivist predecessors.
Ginsburg’s excitement for tax law was like that for a new lover. He talked of it ecstatically, always ready to throw out a problem to me and see how I would grapple with it. If I couldn’t manage, he would walk me through it patiently and with delight, explaining the many steps to its solution. “There is no transaction in tax law which you cannot do if you sit down and think it through,” he repeated often.
The same could be said of the life he shared with his famed and accomplished wife. Both rejected by the establishment, they chose jobs and projects that allowed them to forge new fields. At Marty’s urging, Ruth began working on a sex discrimination case that established her career in constitutional law. Marty practiced tax law as it emerged into a distinct jurisprudence. He partnered with congressional staff, the IRS and the Treasury to rationalize the corporate tax, at the same time solving insoluble problems for clients, sometimes for free so as not to look “unseemly.”
The mutual support the Ginsburgs developed in their marriage is an adult fairy tale. When Marty had cancer in law school, Ruth attended both her classes and his. When he started working in New York, she transferred to Columbia from Harvard Law School to be close to him. Later, when Ruth was appointed to the Court of Appeals, Marty gave up his position at Columbia for one at Georgetown so that they could be together in Washington. When the Supreme Court position became a possibility for Ruth, Marty was more passionate and effective than any paid lobbyist in working the political system to ensure her overwhelming support in Congress.
Far greater even than Ginsburg’s wit and brilliance was his humility. At the end of our first lunch, he drove me back to work in his prehistoric car. All the way, he bantered with me on the law. I felt none of his formidable affluence or celebrity status, only his warmth and his intense need to share the things that he thought were important — namely, finding solutions to unsolvable puzzles. For example, finding his wife a job befitting her talents.
Viva Hammer is a tax lawyer in Washington and formerly associate tax legislative counsel in the Office of Tax Policy at the Treasury Department. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org