Last Saturday I was very surprised to hear about Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. I’m not a fan of Scalia’s political philosophy and have abhorred many of the opinions that he was written in the Supreme Court. In spite of my political difference with him, though, I was very sad to hear about his passing. Though Scalia was a passionate conservative judge, he was also a warm person who respected people of different points of view. One sign of this was the fact that Scalia’s two closest friendships in the Supreme Court were with the two most liberal Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan.
Dara Lind wrote a wonderful article for Vox about Scalia’s friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Scalia and Ginsburg’s families spent New Year’s Eve together every year. They often vacationed together. Ginsburg keeps in her office a photo of her and Scalia riding an elephant in India. Lind wrote of their friendship:
If you’ve ever believed that people can disagree passionately about politics and still respect and care for each other as friends, the friendship of Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a comfort and an inspiration.
He was the Supreme Court’s most outspoken conservative; she is its most outspoken liberal. But their friendship became famous, not just because of its odd-couple unexpectedness but because their mutual respect and affection for each other was obviously genuine.
…It’s easy to mourn the lack of civility in contemporary American politics; politicians on both sides talk glowingly about the time when Ronald Reagan could invite Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill to the White House for a drink to work out a conflict. It’s just as easy to say that civility is for people who don’t have the courage of their convictions — that if people genuinely disagree about what is best for America, they shouldn’t have to put that aside for the sake of small talk.
What makes Ginsburg’s statement remarkable is that it shows how superficial both sides of the civility argument are.
The respect that Ginsburg’s statement shows for Scalia’s intellect — that she could trust him to point out the flaws in her arguments — also reveals a respect for her own, to know the difference between a genuine agreement of principle and an error that needed to be corrected. But more importantly, the statement shows that it’s okay for people in politics to spend time cultivating other interests — like opera — and that those can be a genuine basis for friendship in their own right.
Justice Scalia was also close friends with liberal Justice Elena Kagan. When Justice David Souter retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia lobbied David Axelrod to suggest that Obama select Kagan to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. Years later, when Kagan was selected to the Supreme Court, Kagan and Scalia would frequently take hunting trips together during breaks in the Court. David Axelrod wrote of their friendship:
Each was a graduate of Harvard Law School and had taught at the University of Chicago Law School, though in different eras. They were of different generations, he the son of an Italian immigrant, she a Jew from New York City’s left-leaning West Side. But they shared an intellectual rigor and a robust sense of humor. And if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.
…when another vacancy arose a year later with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, Obama did nominate Kagan, whose friendship with Scalia would grow in the years to come, even as they differed, sometimes sharply, on issues before them.
During her confirmation meetings with senators, Kagan had vowed to go hunting to allay their concerns about her cultural awareness on the issue of guns. When she joined the court, she asked her friend, Scalia, to take her. The two, who occasionally shot intellectual darts at each other on paper, became regular, if unlikely, hunting partners.
The Supreme Court is a singular institution in our system: lifetime appointees, powerful in their impact but uniquely opaque in their process of arriving at decisions.
We have become inured to the animus that characterizes the relationship between many of our elected officials in these highly partisan times. But members of the court, free from the pressures of running for office, relate to each other in a different way.
So much so that a conservative lion would lobby the President’s adviser for his liberal friend.
I was touched by this knowledge about Antonin Scalia. I’m a liberal Democrat. But I also have close conservative friends and family members. I try to separate the feelings I have for these close conservative friends from the anger I have with terrible experiences that I’ve had with rigid ideological conservatives who do not accept people with different opinions. I remember something that Mary Matalin once said. You have to judge people as people. Some conservatives are really nice people. Some conservatives are jerks and rigid ideologues. The same thing goes for liberals. Some liberals are kind people. Some liberals are jerks. Try to be friends with nice people, irregardless of their politics. Avoid those people who are jerks or who are unable to accept differences of opinion.
Here is a youtube video of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was the speaker at the annual Rose Lecture at the University of Tennessee Friday, October 19, 2012. Justice Kagan talked about hunting with Justice Scalia and going to the opera with Justice Ginsburg