Scalia and Ginsburg point to possibilities of bipartisan partnership

On the bench, justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg could not have had more different views on law and politics. But surprisingly enough, they were also the closest of friends. 


In spite of their diametrically opposite views on the Constitution and beyond, the late Justice Antonin Scalia and his colleague on the bench Ruth Bader Ginsburg were dear friends – a relationship so remarkable that it was the inspiration of a recent opera, called “Scalia/Ginsburg.”

"Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance," Justice Ginsburg said in a statement on Sunday. "He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend."

Scalia, known to friends as Nino, was a constitutional originalist – a fierce conservative who dissented to nearly all of Ginsburg’s liberal decisions and vice versa. They disagreed on issues including gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act. And yet the two have been fast friends since the 1980s, when both served on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake,” Scalia would say.

They vacationed with their families together. In a trip to Europe, Ginsburg went parasailing while Scalia stayed on the ground. There is a famous photo of them riding an elephant in India, Scalia in the front and Ginsburg in the back. When asked about feminism, Ginsburg would reply, “It had to do with the distribution of weight.”

The two of them celebrated New Year’s Eve together with spouses. They both loved opera, and have roots in the greater New York City area.

“I never heard them talk about anything political or ideological, because there would be no point,” Ginsburg’s grandson, Paul Spera, told Irin Carmon, co-author of "Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

And when Chief Justice Roberts announced the death of Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, Scalia wiped tears from his eyes on the bench.

"What's not to like?" he once said at a Smithsonian event. "Except her views on the law, of course."

Even in a professional capacity, they were supportive of one another. In the 1996 landmark case, United States v. Virginia, which struck down on women’s exclusion at the Virginia Military Institute, Scalia was the sole dissenter. But before Ginsburg could write her majority opinion, he gave her a copy of his dissent so she could adequately respond.

“He absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent,” Ginsburg said, as reported by Ms. Carmon for The Washington Post.

Especially in light of today’s antagonistic climate of partisanship, the friendship between Ginsburg and Scalia is all the more remarkable. It’s a rare extension of congeniality and professionalism across the aisle, a kind of grace that many would lament as absent in other realms of politics.

And that would include Congress, where Republican leaders have now sworn to reject any nomination to fill Scalia’s seat until a new president is elected in November. In an interview with Carmon last year, Ginsburg reflects upon the prevailing gridlock on Capitol Hill.

“At the moment, our Congress is not functioning very well,” she said, laughing. “The current Congress is not equipped really to do anything.... Someday, we will go back to having the kind of legislature that we should, where members, whatever party they belong to, want to make the thing work and cooperate with each other to see that that will happen. I mean, it was that way in 1992 when I was nominated for this good job. There were only three negative votes. And my hope and expectation is that we will get back to that kind of bipartisan spirit.”

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