What we can learn from Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s friendship

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Sunday marks six years since Justice Antonin Scalia passed away. It’s a fitting occasion to remember the late Justice and his legacy. But one of the greatest aspects of his legacy has nothing to do with the law. It was his friendship with his ideological foe, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Justices eventually came to represent two branches of the Supreme Court—the “Notorious RBG” anchored the so-called liberals, and Scalia led the so-called conservatives. Ginsburg and her jabots became the embodiment of “dissent,” notwithstanding her measured and methodical style of writing and speaking.

Meanwhile, Scalia was best known for his thundering take-no-prisoners dissents. How did these seemingly opposite Justices become the best of friends?

Their mutual devotion to the Constitution, while built on different interpretations, helped them form a mutual respect that would extend far beyond the courtroom.

Scalia and Ginsburg first served together on the powerful U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, often called the second-highest court in the land, in the 1980s.

The pair became fast friends, bonding over a shared love of opera, good food and wine, and their childhoods in New York. Their spouses and children became friends as well, and the families often rang in the New Year together with a gourmet meal prepared by Marty Ginsburg and laughs provided by the gregarious Scalia. They remained close after Scalia’s appointment to the Supreme Court in 1986, and then Ginsburg joined him in 1993.

Scalia once remarked of Ginsburg, “What’s not to like… except her views of the law, of course?”

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, the pair maintained a close friendship that lasted most of their lives. They respected each other and understood that, though they had different approaches, they were both dedicated to the Constitution, the Court, and the country.

One case, United States v. Virginia, highlights the supreme besties at their very best. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, holding that a state university’s exclusion of women violated the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. This case was the culmination of Ginsburg’s earlier work as an advocate seeking to topple laws based on sex stereotypes that ultimately harmed women. Scalia dissented, but he shared a draft of his “very spicy” and “searing” dissent (as Ginsburg later called it) with his BFF—a habit that went back to their days serving together on the D.C. Circuit. In Ginsburg’s estimation, seeing the weaknesses Scalia identified in her opinion allowed her to sharpen her arguments, making the majority opinion stronger and more persuasive.

In nearly 40 years of working together, Scalia and Ginsburg traded barbs in their opinions quite a few times. But they knew how to debate and attack ideas rather than individuals and took their disagreements in stride. That’s an important legacy and something we should all strive for, particularly at a time when American society is becoming increasingly polarized.

In The Essential Scalia, Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a former law clerk to Scalia, recalled a visit to Scalia’s chambers. The Justice mentioned he had two dozen roses to deliver to Ginsburg for her birthday, a tradition that went back many years. Sutton remarked, “What good have all these roses done for you? Name one five-four case of any significance where you got Justice Ginsburg’s vote.” Scalia replied, “Some things are more important than votes.”

Respect, civility, and friendship are, indeed, more important than votes. Today, in remembrance of these two titans of the law, look for ways to cultivate respectful debate in your life. Break out of your echo chamber and look for the Ginsburg to your Scalia.

The latest episode of PLF’s Supreme Court podcast, Dissed, explores Scalia and Ginsburg’s friendship and their opinions in United States v. Virginia.