On September 26, United States Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett delivered her nomination acceptance speech at the White House Rose Garden and began by honoring the legacy of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose seat she’s set to fill.
“Justice Ginsburg began her career at a time when women were not welcome in the legal profession. But she not only broke glass ceilings, she smashed them,” Judge Barrett said. “She was a woman of enormous talent and consequence, and her life of public service serves as an example to us all.”
No doubt, Justice Ginsburg will have a lasting judicial and cultural impact; she was an icon of the feminist movement and an icon of progressivism. The media often heralds her for her rulings and constitutional philosophy, but one exemplary aspect of her time on the Court deserves more emulation: her friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she fiercely disagreed.
In last night’s vice-presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence praised their relationship, holding it up as something to aspire to:
Justices Ginsburg and Scalia looked at the U.S. Constitution through drastically different lenses. She saw the Constitution as a document that was to be reinterpreted with the times; he saw the Constitution as a document to be interpreted and applied according to its original meaning.
They were on opposite sides of the Court and opposite sides of the political spectrum. Justice Ginsburg was a liberal, though her Orthodox Jewish upbringing affected her jurisprudence; Justice Scalia was a conservative and a devout Catholic.
“But do you ever take it personally?” Justice Ginsburg was asked.
“No, I take it as a challenge,” she answered. “As annoying as he might be about his zinging dissents, he’s so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, that you can’t help but say, I’m glad that he’s my friend or he’s my colleague.”
Justices Ginsburg and Scalia disagreed with each other on the most contested issues at the Court, including abortion and same-sex marriage. But they didn’t merely tolerate each other or maintain polite amiability as colleagues—they were dear friends.
Their friendship, or, as Scalia called it, “mutual improvement society,” started long before their appointment to the highest court.
The pair first became colleagues in the early 1980s, together serving on the federal circuit court in Washington, D.C. It was there that they formed a partnership, each helping to look over the other’s opinions and critique them so they could be improved. After Justice Scalia left the circuit court in 1982, he felt her absence. “I have missed Ruth very much since leaving the court of appeals,” he said. “She was the best of colleagues and the best of friends.” But Justice Ginsburg wasn’t far behind him. She once again joined him on the bench in 1993, and they went on to serve for 22 years together at the Supreme Court, before his death in 2016.
They both hailed from Brooklyn and were the children of immigrants. They shared a love of opera and good wine. The two even vacationed together.
That they could maintain an admiration for each other while voluntarily submitting their deeply held convictions to the other’s criticisms is a marvel. While they enjoyed recreational time together, drinking, and cooking, they also saw the other’s opposing opinions as an opportunity to sharpen their own.
“[W]hen I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation,” Justice Ginsburg once recalled. “Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the 'applesauce' and 'argle bargle'—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.”
Justices Ginsburg and Scalia modeled very well what it looks like to favor openness and debate even among those with whom we disagree. And they both benefited from it as a result.
When asked how he could maintain such a bond with Justice Ginsburg while disagreeing with her on so many issues, Scalia once answered, “I attack ideas, not people.”
If we want a shared, peaceful future next to those with whom we disagree, we need to treat each other with dignity and respect, regardless of our opposing viewpoints. Otherwise, how will we learn from each other? How will we keep the marketplace of ideas open so free speech is protected and truth can be pursued in the midst of robust debate?
“These two great Americans demonstrated that arguments, even about matters of great consequence, need not destroy affection,” Judge Barrett said. “In both my personal and professional relationships, I strive to meet that standard.”
As should we all.
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