Opera, travel, food, law: The unlikely friendship of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia
WASHINGTON – Long before they became federal appeals court judges, Supreme Court justices, travel companions and New Year's Eve celebrants together, Ruth Bader Ginsburg watched Antonin Scalia speak to the American Bar Association.
As she would for decades to come, Ginsburg disagreed with Scalia's thesis. But, she recalled in 2014, "he said it in an absolutely captivating way."
Thus did the two ideological opposites attract for what became from that day on a close friendship – one their families, friends and colleagues recalled affectionately after Scalia's death at a Texas ranch in 2016 and again following Ginsburg's death Friday on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
"What's not to like?" Scalia said of Ginsburg at that joint appearance six years ago. "Except her views on the law."
“We agree on a whole lot of stuff,” he added. “Ruth is really bad only on the knee-jerk stuff.”
In an era of increasingly bitter partisan enmity, the odd coupling of Ginsburg – petite, serious, seemingly shy – and Scalia – rotund, garrulous, overtly opinionated – may be viewed as an anachronism. But many cited it over the weekend as a signal of hope.
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One of those was Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, who recalled in a Washington Post column the many New Year's Eve dinners when "Nino" and Maureen Scalia would join Ruth and Martin Ginsburg at their Watergate apartment. The dinners often featured venison or boar that Scalia hunted and Ginsburg's husband, a renowned tax attorney who died in 2010, had expertly prepared.
"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," Eugene Scalia wrote. "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."
Their shared love of opera was on display in 1994, shortly after Ginsburg (a Bill Clinton nominee) joined Scalia (a Ronald Reagan nominee) on the Supreme Court. They appeared together as extras in the Washington National Opera's opening night production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.
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Years later, they became the subjects of "Scalia/Ginsburg," Derrick Wang's 2014 comic opera inspired by their legal opinions.
"It opens with Scalia's rage aria," Ginsburg recalled a few years ago. "He sings, 'The justices are blind, how can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!'" To which she responded that the Constitution, like society, "can evolve."
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The two justices appeared together many times over the years. When tickets went on sale in 2015 for a joint appearance at George Washington University, the first 350 tickets were scooped up in less than three hours.
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Those occasions exhibited the many traits they had in common. They were fellow New Yorkers, Ginsburg having grown up in Brooklyn, Scalia in Queens. They were fellow academics, Scalia having taught at the University of Virginia and University of Chicago law schools, Ginsburg at Rutgers and Columbia.
Their bond was cemented at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, the most common stepping-stone to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg served there from 1980-93, Scalia from 1982-86.
"From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies," Ginsburg said following her colleague's death.
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At Scalia's memorial service in 2016, Ginsburg recounted the story of how, when she was writing the high court's majority opinion striking down the Virginia Military Institute's ban on admitting women, Scalia showed her his unfinished dissent.
"It was a zinger," filled with "disdainful footnotes," she said. But “I was glad to have the extra days to adjust the court’s opinion. My final draft was much improved, thanks to Justice Scalia’s searing criticism.”
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To sum up their friendship, she quoted Scalia: "I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas."
Then later that year, in her memoir "My Own Words," she summed it up her own way:
“How blessed I was," she wrote, "to have a working colleague and dear friend of such captivating brilliance, high spirits and quick wit.”
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