RBG and Antonin Scalia Taught Us Civility Matters More Than Votes

Their friendship transcended their ideological differences. Will we follow their example?

Twitter exploded in the most predictable of ways following the announcement of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It took minutes, not hours, for some users to unsheathe the partisan knives, deploying the same toxic rhetoric that has been poisoning our political discourse for years: name calling, personal attacks, cruel taunts, bullying, veiled (and not-so-veiled) threats of violence.

But there were plenty of tributes and condolences, too, from both sides of the political divide — heartening not only for their basic civility, but for showing that despite our political differences, most Americans still believe that we share certain foundational values that transcend those differences.

Nowhere was that on display more poignantly than in a tweet from Christopher Scalia, the son of the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I’m very sad to hear about the passing of my parents’ good friend, and my father’s wonderful colleague, Justice Ginsburg,” he said. “May her memory be a blessing. I’d like to share a couple of passages that convey what she meant to my dad.”

One of the memories he shared was from an encounter between Judge Jeffrey Sutton and Scalia. As Sutton prepared to leave Scalia’s chambers, Scalia pointed to two dozen roses he was planning to deliver to his friend “Ruth” for her birthday. Sutton was surprised: “So 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’s reply? “Some things are more important than votes.”

Here were two of the most powerful figures in America, deciding matters that would affect millions of lives and the course of the nation for decades, if not longer. The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Neither Ginsburg nor Scalia shied away from the debate; they argued the issues with all the powers of their considerable intellects.

And yet, Ginsburg and Scalia nurtured a warm and enduring friendship that transcended their ideological differences. In fact, as Scalia’s son observed elsewhere, their friendship seemed to thrive on their divergent interpretations of the Constitution.

Ginsburg herself wrote warmly of her friendship with Scalia following his death in 2016:

We were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the “applesauce” and “argle bargle” — and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion.

Their friendship, she wrote, was based on their shared “reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve.”

Ginsburg and Scalia wrote many important words in their official decisions for the Court; somehow, none of those decisions seem quite as consequential in this fraught moment as the words of warmth, humor, and respect they shared publicly about one another. To the extent that their example becomes a model that other Americans imitate, it might just be their greatest gift to the nation.

The coming days and weeks are going to be hard — tougher, no doubt, than the hugely contentious 2018 nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. Given the fragile state of our institutions and the incendiary state of our politics, who wouldn’t be surprised if things got even worse? Who wouldn’t be surprised if we let the necessary fight tear America apart in ways that could take a generation or more to heal?

No one would be surprised. But perhaps the best tribute we can give to RBG — and her late colleague and friend Antonin Scalia— would be to surprise everyone by sorting out our very real differences with civility.

Can we do it? It’s hard, really hard, to be civil in the middle of an argument about stuff that matters. But RBG and Scalia aren’t calling on us to share an opera booth with our political opposites, or even to buy them roses. They would be satisfied, I think, if we only prosecuted our differences with reverence for the American ideal that ought to unite us.


Image: Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014. Image credit: Levan Ramishvili


This essay also appeared in Medium.

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