Ruth Bader Ginsberg was driving down a New Jersey highway when she called to celebrate the case that changed my life.
It was March 19, 1975, and she had to pull over to find a pay phone to give me the news: the United State Supreme Court had ruled in our favor, deciding I was entitled, as a widower, to a Social Security benefit of $206 a month after my wife Paula had died in childbirth.
The all-male bench handed us the victory 8-0, and Ruth was very excited. Her strategy had worked.
The case, known as Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, propelled Ruth into national fame. For years afterward, she would say it was her favorite.
It also forged a friendship that would last for almost five decades.
We met after I had written a letter to the editor of my local newspaper in New Jersey in December 1972. Paula had died about six months earlier as she gave birth to our son, Jason, but in those days, the Social Security survivor’s benefit, which was the equivalent of nearly $1,000 today, was only handed out to widows.
The letter became quite famous, she even read part of it in the 2018 documentary, “RBG.”
She called a short time later, and by February 1973, she had filed a case in federal court in Trenton on my behalf. She told me whoever lost would likely appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The three-judge panel ruled in my favor, and the federal government appealed.
We were set to go in front of the Supreme Court in January 1975. The night before, Ruth explained her legal strategy.
She was making the case from three points of view: my wife’s, my son’s and mine. She made it clear to the court it was unfair I was denied the benefit so I could raise Jason, as Paula would have if I had been the one who died.
She wanted me there because she wanted the eight male justices — Justice William O. Douglas was ill — to see me, so they could identify with who was bringing this case.
Watching her in court, I could see she was very confident. She spoke for about 20 minutes before the justices asked any questions. Our unanimous victory was one of the amazing things about her, and what she was able to do — this was the Warren Burger court, a very conservative court. It was the only case in which Justice Rehnquist voted in her favor. She was very proud of that.
It was years before I found out I was the only client she ever took to sit before the Supreme Court as she argued a case.
Not long ago, we found out three justices discussed the case before they even heard it. They were discussing how disgusting it was that a male wanted to stay home and take care of a child.
The win allowed me to stay home with Jason, which I did for nine years, and of course allowed other widowers and their children to receive the same benefits.
In person, Ruth was very friendly, warm, very caring person. She might have been shy and withdrawn in her personal life, but when she got to talking, she could talk. When she was giving a speech or being interviewed, she could become very animated. You could tell she enjoyed it.
Seeing her in recent years was kind of difficult because we lived in different states, but she would occasionally get a chance to visit me after I moved to Florida, or at my summer home in Asheville, North Carolina. We visited in Washington DC when I was there, as well, though not often.
She also came to Florida for a weekend in 1998 to preside at Jason’s wedding, and officiated at my second wedding in 2014. My wife, Elaine, got to meet her the night before the ceremony in her chambers at the Supreme Court. I really appreciated that she was so accepting.
Ruth would invite me to events now and then. She would even break the line of the U.S. marshals protecting her if she would see me at an event. She would always come right over to me and give me a big hug.
She was a big opera fan, and tried to get me into it in the 1970s. But the first time I really took an interest was when she sent me a CD made for “The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Song,” that was produced by her son, James, and featuring her daughter-in-law, Patrice Michaels, who is a soprano. That was really well done, and I really enjoyed listening to it.
She sent me a tape a number of years ago, she had been sitting in an audience and the opera star Placido Domingo was near her, and sang “Happy Birthday,” to her. That was one of the highlights of her life.
We wrote to each other regularly. I have a lot of correspondence from her, most recently a handwritten note she sent in August. In that one and in another from July, she had said she was having difficulty. Still, it was shocking to hear that my friend had passed.
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