Eugene Scalia is the U.S. secretary of labor. The views expressed are his own.
The New Year’s dinner tradition dated to the 1980s, when the two were judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington. Some of the Ginsburg and Scalia children and grandchildren joined, with one or two other couples. Evenings began with champagne and opera playing in the Ginsburgs’ Watergate apartment; dinner was prepared by Justice Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, who some years served venison or boar from my father’s post-Christmas hunting trip.
What can be learned from this celebrated friendship between justices?
First, in many ways, it was quite simple, as some of the best friendships are. They worked at the same place. They were both New Yorkers, close in age and liked a lot of the same things: the law, teaching, travel, music and a meal with family and friends. They had a bond, I think, in that they both grew up as outsiders — to different degrees — to the elites who had ruled the country: she as a Jew and woman, he as a Catholic and Italian American.
Like many good friendships, the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship was between couples — my father and my extraordinary mother, and Justice Ginsburg and Marty. One of the rewards of the two recent movies about Justice Ginsburg is the light they shine on her husband: his humor and intelligence, and his powerful love and dedication to his wife. He was a cherished friend for my mother.
I’ve long thought Justice Ginsburg enjoyed my father’s company in part for some of the qualities that drew her to Marty. Both were extroverts who brought a boisterous levity that she did not, but which she enjoyed and, I think, knew she needed.
This appreciation for differences was as integral to the justices’ friendship as the similarities. She had made her mark as a pioneering advocate for women’s rights; my father was a traditional Catholic who came to prominence as a critic of activist courts. He respected what she had achieved in an era when the deck was stacked against her; from her experiences, he gained insight and depth of understanding. He liked learning and could learn from her.
In that spirit, it’s often remarked today that if our government leaders spent more time together, they would come to like and respect one another, be more civil, and achieve consensus, harmony and wondrous legislation.
Don’t draw that lesson from Ginsburg-Scalia.
I first became aware of Justice Ginsburg when she and my father were on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and he lamented — good-naturedly — that she’d written an opinion describing his view of the case as “less-than-fully baked.” It might have been worse, I said. “She could have called your ideas half-baked.” No, he said with an appreciative grin, this was worse: “It could mean I’m one-quarter or one-fifth baked!”
The two disagreed vigorously the rest of their lives on some of the most important things. Justice Ginsburg’s opinion in the Supreme Court’s landmark decision requiring the admission of women to Virginia Military Institute, my father wrote, was “politics smuggled into law.” Meanwhile, she dismissed his argument in the first case on the Affordable Care Act as “outlandish.” His opinion in an important criminal law case took “a wrecking ball” to the statute, she said, to which he replied — recalling her jab from decades earlier? — that her opinion was “a dish the Court has cooked up all on its own.” And so on.
What we can learn from the justices, though — 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.
One of my fondest memories of my parents was one of the last New Year’s dinners. My wife and I sat back as four dear friends chit-chatted about the court, grandchildren and a sauce for wild boar. How fortunate for my father, I thought, in his sometimes lonely position, to have the comfort of such friends. How fortunate for us all, especially those who are partisans of one or the other of these great figures, to have the example of their disputatious friendship.