Recalling the Unlikely Ginsburg-Scalia Friendship

Justice Antonin Scalia’s love of debate was one of the things that drew him to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a woman with whom he disagreed on many things, including many aspects of the law.

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014.
Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014. (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week at age 87, is remembered as a hero of the political left— a self-described feminist who made a name for herself by advocating for women’s equality, and for socially liberal positions such as legalized abortion and same-sex marriage.

She was, in some ways, the last person you might expect to be close friends with a conservative, committed Catholic.

But in fact, Ginsburg had a warm friendship with the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia— a conservative icon and devout Catholic, who died in 2016.

“Their friendship can offer Americans an important lesson in these tense times. They remind us that we share a lot more than politics,” Scalia’s son, Chris, told CNA late last year.

“There's a lot more to life than political opinion. It is possible to disagree with somebody, to have different outlooks on life and politics and the law and your profession, but focus instead on what you have in common, and the things in life that you both enjoy, and focus on those things, and develop a real friendship out of those things.”

Scalia was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the son of an Italian immigrant, and grew up in New York City. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986, and served until his death at age 79 in 2016.

Ginsburg also grew up in New York; she was born in 1933 and raised in a Jewish home. President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court in 1993.

Famously, Scalia and his wife would spend every New Years Eve throughout the 1980s with the Ginsburgs, Chris said, sometimes staying at their house talking, laughing, and debating until four in the morning.

Some years, Ginsburg’s husband would cook for dinner the venison that Scalia had gathered on his post-Christmas hunting trip.

In the minds of Scalia’s children, “the Ginsburgs were just this couple my parents got to know and really just enjoyed spending time with,” Chris said.

Another of Scalia’s sons, Fr. Paul, a priest of the diocese of Arlington, described his father as a strong personality, a strong intellect, and an unabashed contrarian who loved to debate.

“He was very much a ‘man in full’ as the saying goes, and had a broad variety of interests, from hunting and fishing to the opera,” Fr. Paul told CNA.

His father also was a proud Catholic, who loved the Mass, the liturgy, and the Church's intellectual tradition, the priest said.

Scalia’s love of debate was one of the things that drew him to Ginsburg— a woman with whom he disagreed on many things, including many aspects of the law. But Scalia admired Ginsburg’s determination, especially in an era when it was harder for women to achieve the career success that Ginsburg attained.

“She was a sparring partner with him…My father liked people who would match him, and who would push back,” Father Paul noted.

“He would hire clerks who would challenge him on things. He wanted that. He wanted that intellectual engagement, because he knew that it was good for him. It would test his line of thought and his principles.”

As the longest serving justice on the bench at the time of his death, Justice Scalia is remembered for his strong emphasis on interpreting the law as it was originally written and intended. Ginsburg, in contrast, believed in a “living Constitution” that could be adapted to the times. The two frequently criticized each other’s legal reasoning and opinions.

In their nearly 23 years together on the bench, they heard and debated hugely consequential cases having to do with such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, and the 2000 presidential election.

When asked about their friendship in a 2014 interview, Justice Scalia seemed to brush off suggestions that it was somehow extraordinary.

“I have never gotten angry at Ruth or at any of my colleagues because of the way they voted in an opinion. I mean, if you cannot disagree with your colleagues on the law without taking it personally, you ought to get another day job,” Scalia said.

“It’s just not the kind of a job that will allow you to behave that way. Ruth and I disagree on the law all the time. It’s never had anything to do with our friendship.”

Another facet of the Scalia-Ginsburg friendship was a mutual sense of humor, Scalia’s sons said. Scalia possessed a rich sense of humor, and loved to sing and tell jokes.

“I think one of the reasons Justice Ginsburg liked my father is that he cracked her up...She said that very few people could make her laugh out loud; basically it was her husband, and my father,” Chris said.

Scalia and Ginsburg first struck up a friendship in the 1980s, when they served together on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Chris said Scalia used to whisper jokes to Ginsburg during arguments, and she would have to pinch herself to keep from laughing out loud.

When they again sat together on the bench, this time on the Supreme Court, Scalia would pass notes to Ginsburg with jokes or funny comments on them.

“I think it strikes us as weird in part because we live in such polarized times, and because they are themselves kind of heroes of very different sides— Ginsburg is a legend for the left, and my father is kind of the equivalent for the conservative legal movement. So I think that makes it even stranger to people,” Chris said.

“Obviously they had big differences as far as their jurisprudence went. But it’s really not that strange when you consider the many things they had in common.”

These similarities included growing up in New York around the same time, enjoying good food and wine, and a love of opera.

There even exists a comedic opera about the two justices, called Scalia/Ginsburg, written by a graduate of the Yale School of Music-turned-law school student. The opera includes many jokes and gags that riff on the two’s intellectual and philosophical differences, but also includes moments of unity between the two characters, including a heartwarming duet.

Obviously, there were elements of their worldviews— very significant elements— that Ginsburg and Scalia did not share. Scalia was a devout Catholic, and Ginsburg and her husband Marty were secular Jews.

Still, Father Paul noted that since Scalia was so committed to living out his faith, their friendship doubtless gave Ginsburg a chance to encounter a truly lived Catholicism— and it is clear that she respected that.

“I think my father was aware of giving good witness to the Catholic faith. That was part of who he was. So in his friendship with her, that was going to be part of it...And I think this is the beginning of evangelization: simply demonstrating the ability to be a serious Catholic, but also capable of friendship, and friendship with somebody who is different and who disagrees,” Father Paul said.