When the news of Antonin Scalia’s death hit the press it did not take long before the political posturing began. Voices on the Right quickly pronounced that Senate Republicans should make certain to block any Obama nomination to fill the seat left vacant on the high court. Many on the Left reacted with equally strong counter-pronouncements, and all this before Justice Scalia had even been dead for 24 hours.
Reading some of the news stories published the evening he died, another kind of unseemliness emerged from the reading public. A huge number of reader comments following articles in major newspapers celebrated Scalia’s death at least in the sense that the court was finally rid of a man who was, among other things, “evil,” “sadistic,” and “crooked.”
While many have disagreed with Justice Scalia’s opinions—on the Second Amendment, on Bush v. Gore, on abortion law, on same-sex marriage—surely few have disagreed more pointedly and with more consequence than his longtime colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a nation with such vicious political speech from elected officials and the public alike, Justice Ginsburg should give us all pause. In her statement following Scalia’s death she commented that she and Scalia “were best buddies” and that he was a “treasured friend.”
Their profound principled disagreement did not lead them either to disrespect or outrage. Quite the opposite, in fact. “We disagreed now and then,” Justice Ginsburg mildly observed, “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.” Translation: especially in our disagreements my friend helped me reason more effectively.
There are many kinds of diversity that make intellectual institutions better. Surely one of the most important kinds is diversity in reasoned opinion, especially among friends. Our high court benefited from having these two friends disagree out in the open with honesty, rigor, and verve. Their collaboration shows us all a way to admire an intellectual challenger and cherish them as a friend.
For those of us in the Academy the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship is one to study closely. The Academy is at its best when spirited disagreement is admired and guarded. Reasoned disagreement is neither the enemy of truth-seeking nor of trustworthy friendship. And I suspect that this kind of friendship is attainable only when truth is the end and when humility is the means. I fear it is not attainable otherwise.
I am thankful for the Ginsburg-Scalia friendship, which made our high court and our country better. May such friendships be the norm and not the exception within our institutions of higher learning.
Dr. Jonathan Yonan is Dean of the Templeton Honors College.