WASHINGTON — When asked to characterize President Reagan's new Supreme Court nominee Douglas H. Ginsburg on Thursday, Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, an old faculty colleague, found himself reduced to groping for old movie lines.
"I think it was Greta Garbo or Mae West who said: 'I'd rather date younger men because they have shorter stories,' " Dershowitz mused. "Well, Doug has a very short story."
Indeed he does. Ginsburg is not only extremely young, but the story of his professional career is remarkably brief. If confirmed, Ginsburg, 41, would become the youngest justice to join the court in nearly a half century--since President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed 40-year-old William O. Douglas in 1939.
Could Set Longevity Record
Douglas set a record by staying on the bench for 36 years. Ginsburg could well stay on the court for four decades, setting a new longevity record.
Douglas had built up a reputation in Washington as one of the leading figures in the New Deal and as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Ginsburg is not so well known. After serving as a professor at Harvard Law School for seven years, he came to Washington in 1983 to work in mid-level positions in the Justice Department and the Office of Management and Budget. A year ago, he was appointed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Beyond his age, Ginsburg's nomination is notable in another respect. If confirmed, he would be the first Jewish member of the court since Justice Abe Fortas stepped down amid allegations of financial irregularities in 1969. Fortas' resignation broke a tradition of a so-called "Jewish seat" on the court that began with the bitterly contested appointment of Justice Louis D. Brandeis in 1916.
Few Interests Outside Law
What kind of person is Ginsburg? Friends and associates Thursday portrayed him as quiet, intelligent and hard-working, with few interests outside the law.
"I don't think he has a life with much color or eccentricity in it," said one longtime friend, a Washington lawyer. "When we are together, mostly we talk about antitrust law or about academic politics."
Ginsburg would be the first Supreme Court justice from the baby-boom generation. He was born in 1946, was graduated from Cornell University in 1970 and moved on immediately to the University of Chicago Law School.
Those were the turbulent days of anti-war demonstrations and the shootings at Kent State University, but no one interviewed Thursday could recall Ginsburg's taking part in any campus protests. "There were two guys in my school class who wore coats and ties to class every day," said a former law school classmate, University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock. "Doug was one of them."
Ginsburg quickly followed the prestigious route of serving as a law clerk, first for U.S. Circuit Judge Carl McGowan and then for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. By the time he took that job in 1974, colleagues perceived him as a political conservative.
"He was extremely thoughtful, extremely conservative, very smooth and very dogmatic," said University of Chicago law professor Dennis J. Hutchinson, who met Ginsburg as a fellow member of the Supreme Court's network of law clerks. "He was as reasoned a conservative as there was."
Justice Marshall Thursday refused to comment on the Ginsburg appointment or on his work as a law clerk. "I'm not going to say one word about him--now, henceforth, or forever more, world without end, amen," Marshall told The Times.
At Harvard, Ginsburg specialized in antitrust law and government regulation. Despite the Reagan Administration's effort Thursday to portray him as a hard-liner on criminal law, colleagues say Ginsburg never took any interest in criminal law at Harvard and never taught a single course on the subject.
Colleagues at the law school say the absence of any writing by Ginsburg on the controversial subjects of criminal and constitutional law makes it difficult to predict how he will behave on the court. "He's got an open mind. I don't think he's got a particular track record on these issues," Prof. Richard B. Stewart said.
"He's going to be a surprise to Reagan and (Atty. Gen. Edwin) Meese if they think he's going to be like (Reagan's previous nominee, Robert H.) Bork on issues like privacy in the bedroom," Dershowitz said. "He's not like Bork on the issue of executive power, either. Ginsburg is not Bork."
Striking Contrast to Bork
In personal style, Ginsburg provides a striking contrast to Bork.
Where Bork is rumpled, Ginsburg is dapper. Bork's beard is scraggly and overgrown; Ginsburg's is neatly trimmed. Bork's frame is portly; Ginsburg is tall and thin. Even if the two men's ideology were to prove to be the same, Ginsburg has an appearance more fit for an age of televised confirmation hearings.