Opinion

A civility award for the Supreme Court's odd couple

On Monday my alma mater Allegheny College bestowed its sixth annual Prize for Civility in Public Life to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

The award, which was presented at a ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., typically goes to a political odd couple — last year the honorees were Sen. John McCain and Vice President Joe Biden — and celebrates the importance of respectful dialogue across partisan and philosophical lines.

The college’s president, James H. Mullen Jr., said of Scalia and Ginsburg: “Their disagreements on a number of the key issues of our time were acute, representing opposing interpretations of the Constitution. Yet they forged a friendship grounded in mutual respect for the intellectual integrity and love of country that each brought to service on the court.”

It was a remarkable relationship, one that has even inspired an opera (from which Ginsburg quoted in her remarks).

Of course, as Ginsburg noted, all of the members of the court strive for collegiality. She mentioned the tradition of the justices shaking hands before conferences and arguments.

Moreover, the court may be about to see a new liberal-conservative odd couple. On the eve of the swearing-in of Judge Neal Gorsuch as Scalia’s successor, the Washington Post published excerpts from a discussion last summer at which Gorsuch and Justice Elena Kagan, an Obama appointee, gushed over each other’s writing skills.

In fairness, both Ginsburg and Scalia have had their uncivil moments. Ginsburg had to express regret last year after she called Trump a “faker” and made other injudicious remarks about the Republican presidential candidate.

As for Scalia, in accepting the award on his family’s behalf, the late justice’s son Eugene acknowledged that “civility” might not be the first word to roll off the tongues of some of the lawyers who had appeared before his sometimes acerbic father.

Scalia also could be less than charitable in comments directed at colleagues other than Ginsburg. This is how he characterized Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell vs. Hodges, the 2015 decision establishing a constitutional right to marriage for same-sex couples: “If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag.”

Uncivil, perhaps, but certainly memorable.

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