Bench Memos

Law & the Courts

The Scalia-Ginsburg Friendship

The deep and genuine friendship between Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg provides an especially important model in these intensely polarized times.

As Eugene Scalia, the Secretary of Labor and the oldest son of the justice, emphasizes in this Washington Post essay, the lesson their friendship provides is not that our government leaders would “achieve consensus, harmony, and wondrous legislation” if only they “spent more time together.” Rather:

What we can learn from the justices … — beyond how to be a friend — is how to welcome debate and differences. 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. 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.

Christopher Scalia, the youngest son of the justice, draws the same lesson in this Fox News essay:

Reasonable people of good faith will disagree about important issues. You and your friends will likely hold very strong, very different opinions about what course our country should take and who should lead us there.

A healthy republic requires citizens to debate those issues forcefully and peacefully; a healthy society needs citizens to remember that political disagreement need not turn friends into enemies. My father and Justice Ginsburg mastered this balance. We’ll all need to do the same in the difficult months before us.

Chris also highlights this wonderful story that Sixth Circuit judge Jeffrey Sutton recounts in his delightful introduction to The Essential Scalia: On the Constitution, the Courts, and the Rule of Law (which Judge Sutton and I co-edited):

During one of my last visits with Justice Scalia, I saw striking evidence of the Scalia-Ginsburg relationship. As I got up to leave his chambers, he pointed to two dozen roses on his table and noted that he needed to take them down to “Ruth” for her birthday. “Wow,” I said, “I doubt I have given a total of twenty-four roses to my wife in almost thirty years of marriage.” “You ought to try it sometime,” he retorted. Unwilling to give him the last word, I pushed back: “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.” “Some things,” he answered, “are more important than votes.”

I let him have the last word.

Justice Ginsburg wrote the beautiful foreword to Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived (which Chris Scalia and I co-edited). Here’s how it ends:

If our friendship encourages others to appreciate that some very good people have ideas with which we disagree, and that, despite differences, people of goodwill can pull together for the well-being of the institutions we serve and our country, I will be overjoyed, as I am confident Justice Scalia would be.

Scalia Speaks also includes Justice Scalia’s speech roasting Justice Ginsburg at an event celebrating her tenth anniversary on the D.C. Circuit.


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