The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the US Supreme Court on 18th September reminded me that she had been part of one of the most unexpected and delightful friendships that I have ever heard about. The other half was her fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016 after 30 years’ service on the Court (Ginsburg herself notched up 27 years).
In political terms, the two were opposites. Scalia, an observant and believing Catholic and the father of nine children, was famous for his conservative approach to the law, and for his scintillating criticisms – known as “dissents” – of some of the Court’s recent liberal rulings, notably in 2015 when it ruled that the US Constitution contained a right to same-sex marriage. Justice Scalia wrote that the ruling from the five Justices who supported same-sex marriage was “lacking even a thin veneer of law” and that their reasoning was “fundamentally at odds with our system of government.”
Ginsburg, by contrast, was a progressive, who could be relied upon to advance secular and liberal causes. Her legal career before her appointment to the Supreme Court was devoted to such campaigning. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter, an academic journal, and wrote a legal textbook on sex discrimination.
Despite all this, a friendship sprung up. A Los Angeles Times story a few years ago noted that the pair, along with their spouses, regularly had New Year’s Eve dinner together, and even joined each other on holiday. In 2015, the two appeared at an event at George Washington University. Scalia said that “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like? … Except her views on the law.” Ginsburg said of Scalia: “I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it.”
I disagreed with most of what he [Scalia] said, but I loved the way he said it. – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Indeed, in 2015, the composer Derrick Wang actually wrote an opera about the long-standing friendship, Scalia v Ginsburg, for the Castleton Festival of arts. The plot involves the two justices defending each other’s approaches to the law, and it continues to be performed around the USA (Covid-19 permitting).
I find this friendship rather inspiring (Scalia also maintained a friendship with another liberal female Justice on the Court, Elena Kagan, whom he reportedly taught to hunt). At a time when the USA appears to be lurching towards political breakdown and even civil conflict, there is something irresistibly appealing in the image of two intelligent people, both articulate advocates for their worldview, putting aside political questions to simply enjoy each other’s company and encounter one another as real individuals.
There is something irresistibly appealing in the image of two intelligent people, both articulate advocates for their worldview, putting aside political questions to simply enjoy each other’s company.
It’s a blow against the politics of identity, which encourages people to regard criticism of the ideas they hold as a personal attack, and so to view people who disagree with them as reprehensible. This kind of approach was on show recently in the furious media onslaught against the former Australian Prime Minister and now UK trade envoy Tony Abbott. He was labelled “homophobic” because of his opposition to same-sex marriage and “misogynistic” because – well, it was never really clear why, except that he is a conservative and therefore damned as morally suspect.
The good example set by the late Justices Ginsburg and Scalia, the demonstration that good humour and basic human connection can transcend partisan difference, will almost certainly be sorely needed over the next few months. President Trump and Republican Party leaders have announced that they will try to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court before the elections of Tuesday, 3rd November – just weeks away now. (This weekend, President Trump nominated Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.) Nominations for the Supreme Court must be confirmed by a simple majority of the Senate, i.e. 51 Senators. The Republicans currently hold 53 seats in the Senate – although this may change after the election. The Democrats are likely to fight tooth and nail against the attempt to replace Ginsburg before polling day, not least because it is far from inconceivable that the Supreme Court may end up adjudicating a disputed election, as it did in 2000 in the case of Bush v Gore. Joe Biden is said to be amassing a great army of lawyers to fight his corner in preparation. If Trump were to get a Justice on to the Court, it would be his third appointment during his Presidency, and would mean six out of its nine members would be conservatives.
The demonstration that good humour and basic human connection can transcend partisan difference, will almost certainly be sorely needed over the next few months.
There is a great opportunity for the Church in these polarised times, to promote the value of friendship. Romans 12 reminds us, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.” Perhaps we as Catholics can look to Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s friendship to remind us of an authentic Catholic humanism, rooted in the God-given value of each individual, confident in the ability of reason to find objective truth about the world and our place in it.
This would stand firmly in opposition to the raucous antagonism and incoherent prejudices of the modern world. It would point not to our subjective experiences or to misleading concepts of identity, but instead offer the heart of our faith. As the Holy Father put it in a Tweet this July, “Friendship is one of life’s gifts and a grace from God. Faithful friends, who stand at our side in times of difficulty, are a reflection of the Lord’s love, His gentle and consoling presence in our lives.”
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
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