Ruth E. Burdick (1998-99)

Deputy Associate General Counsel
Chief, Appellate and Supreme Court Litigation Branch
National Labor Relations Board

My clerkship with Shirley was both inspiring personally and foundational to my legal development. She stood as a living example of how to navigate a career dedicated to public service and built on a bedrock of ethics.  To this day, I keep of photograph of her in my office that I can see from my desk as a reminder that she is both watching me, and watching over me. 

In addition to a foremost legal mind, Shirley was tough as nails, and all business in the courtroom, often displaying a rather stern demeanor with the litigators. For instance, during the first oral argument one day, I witnessed an arguer, apparently overcome by fear, faint at the podium and slip to the floor right after she asked him the first question. We were worried that she might have killed him, but no, he had just been too nervous to eat breakfast. Back in chambers, Shirley dropped the courtroom face, and her true character displayed as good-natured and generous to a fault, and with a quick sense of humor at the ready. Because of her hard work and long hours, some court staff affectionately referred to her as “the energizer bunny.” Speaking of names, I clerked at a time which she was Chief Justice, and she wanted to be addressed by everyone, including those in her chambers, as “Chief.” But quietly behind her back, when she was out of earshot, Robin, her assistant, and I instead referred to her as “Chiefie,” a secret endearment. 

A 1999 campaign ad for Shirley Abrahamson
A 1999 campaign ad for Shirley Abrahamson

The year I clerked for Shirley was an election year.  When I came on-board, she said “you’re my election clerk, get on top of things and stay there, I’ll be busy, and then we’ll work hard.”  Sure enough, my experience in that very busy year was similar to how Lynn Haug (1988-1989), her prior election clerk, described it in her posted comments. I kept up with the flow of circulations, drafted bench memos and draft opinions, and then Shirley would appear for a string of days in which we worked through the cases well into the night. I found that work, and its pace, to be mentally stimulating, albeit exhausting. To this day, it makes me aware of how far I can mentally push myself when under multiple deadlines, just like muscle memory learned after a marathon. That April, when she won reelection, the jubilation was contagious. I will never forget the morning after she won re-election while I was on my way to chambers, a janitor at the Capitol pulled me aside, and said under his breath (with gusto and a clenched fist), “Thank god she kicked ass.” I immediately reported that to the Chief when I arrived to chambers, and she burst into extended laughter.