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Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia shared a seemingly unlikely friendship. On paper and on the bench, their judicial philosophies were at odds — Ginsburg a leader of the court’s liberal wing and Scalia a conservative icon — yet they managed to cultivate an enduring personal bond.
Today, differences in opinion are too often treated as deficiencies in character. Sometimes, that may truly be the case. But it should not be the default position to treat different ideas as dangerous or immoral. There are bad ideas and there are bad people, and we must retain the ability to distinguish between the two.
In 2016, Ginsburg spoke at Scalia’s memorial service and shared how her fellow justice responded when asked how the two ideologically opposed justices could be friends.
“And Justice Scalia answered, ‘I attack ideas, I don’t attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas,’” Ginsburg said, getting a laugh from her fellow mourners.
As the nation now mourns the loss of Ginsburg, her words in 2016 about how Scalia challenged and enabled her to make better arguments are particularly instructive. She told a story of Scalia sharing a draft dissent with her ahead of time, even though she was writing the majority opinion that he was arguing against.
“It was a zinger,” filled with “disdainful footnotes,” she recounted, adding that “I was glad to have the extra days to adjust the court’s opinion. My final draft was much improved, thanks to Justice Scalia’s searing criticism.”
In a recent Washington Post OpEd, Eugene Scalia, the former Justice’s son and current Secretary of Labor under President Donald Trump, cautioned about which lessons to draw from the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship.
“It’s often remarked today that if our government leaders spent more time together, they would come to like and respect one another, be more civil, and achieve consensus, harmony and wondrous legislation,” the younger Scalia wrote. “Don’t draw that lesson from Ginsburg-Scalia.”
Instead, he would have people welcome debate and different opinions.
“The two justices had central roles in addressing some of the most divisive issues of the day, including cases on abortion, same-sex marriage and who would be president. Not for a moment did one think the other should be condemned or ostracized,” Scalia wrote in the OpEd. “More than that, they believed that what they were doing — arriving at their own opinions thoughtfully and advancing them vigorously — was essential to the national good. With less debate, their friendship would have been diminished, and so, they believed, would our democracy.”
Like Ginsburg and Scalia, people shouldn’t shy away from disagreements or uncomfortable conversations in the name of friendship. That is not to say that people have to stay friends with someone when there is a disagreement over core values. There can be some red lines. But we all should be able to stand up for our beliefs without conditioning friendship on total agreement.
Ginsburg concluded her 2016 eulogy for Scalia by highlighting their shared reverence for the Supreme Court and the role it plays in America. We’d encourage the entire U.S. Senate — but particularly the Republican majority who (with the exception of Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski) appear poised to make themselves hypocrites of historic proportions — to think long and hard about whether their actions reflect that same reverence for the court shared by these two friends.
“I will miss the challenges, and the laughter he provoked. His pungent, eminently quotable opinions, so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp. The roses he brought me on my birthday. The chance to appear with him once more as supernumeraries at the opera,” Ginsburg said, referencing the opera written about their friendship in which they both performed as amateur characters.
“How blessed I was to have a working colleague and dear friend of such captivating brilliance, high spirits, and quick wit,” she continued. “In the words of a duet for tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg, we were different, yes, in our interpretation of written text, yet one in our reverence for the court and its place in the U.S. system of governance.”