WASHINGTON — Last Friday evening, Justice Stephen Breyer was reciting the mourner's kaddish — the prayer that observant Jews say in memory of the dead — when he learned he had new reason to mourn. As he joined his daughter and grandchildren in watching the livestream of services for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, the Supreme Court called to tell him that his friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
“A great justice, a woman of valor, a rock of righteousness, and my good, good friend," Breyer said, describing to me his thoughts that night in an interview Friday on MSNBC. "Those are the things I thought she contributed. She made the world a better place for us to live in. So you think, oh, dear. And then you think, thank you, thank you."
Asked about the legacy of his friend, whom Chief Justice John Roberts memorialized earlier this week as someone whose soft voice commanded attention in the justices' conferences, Breyer said:
“You read what she wrote and there it is, laid out very clearly. And it's going to be true to the record and it's going to be true to the arguments and it's going to explain them, and it's going to be detailed. And succinctly. Obviously it's helpful to me and the other judges."
He added: "She has strong principles. And she holds them."
Breyer and Ginsburg were very close. They had known each other for years even before President Bill Clinton nominated them for the Supreme Court, Ginsburg in 1993, Breyer a year later.
On Friday, shortly after a ceremony where she became the first woman, and the first Jewish person, accorded the honor of lying in state in the Capitol, Breyer described his friend’s personal qualities, and her devotion to her work:
“She's not a tremendously talkative ‘small talk’ person...but she's the kind of person that as a person you like her better the more you know her," he said. "I would go into her office sometimes and I would say something very — that I thought was extremely funny, and she usually thought it was at least moderately funny."
But there was a limit to her patience for amusement.
"I knew I had a certain amount of time because she wanted to get back to work," he said. "And she would be standing behind her desk, reading something, or maybe thinking about something. Probably what she was reading or thinking or whatever or talking or writing or something like that. I know she wanted to get back to it. So I knew how to time it pretty well.”
Ginsburg, who was 87 when she died, sent a birthday card to Breyer for his 82nd birthday on Aug. 15. With the justices working remotely because of the pandemic, he only discovered it two days ago when he returned to the court for Ginsburg’s memorial.
Breyer said he chuckled at her message.
“It said, ‘to my younger colleague,’ and she thinks that's terribly funny," he said. "I rather liked it. She said, ‘We'll get together when this disease is over, this plague, see an opera or see some visual thing, life will go on.’ Just thinking about that cheers me up.”
At today's congressional service, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt said that “Justice Ginsburg’s dissents were not cries of defeat, they were blueprints for the future.”
Asked about those dissents, Breyer said, “I'm not her, but I read them. I see what she's writing, I learn something."
He said justices can only write what they think is the law, and leave history to judge, but that she did so based on a clear set of values.
"The law is there to help people live their lives in communities," he said. "And she understood that, and she understood how really wrong it was to be discriminatory or unfair. That's what we're about. That's what judging is about. And she felt that strongly, and she expressed it clearly.”