Harmony is Possible

Ruth_Bader_Ginsburg_official_portraitI enjoyed meeting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg yesterday and hearing her speak at the invitation of the Lawyers’ Club of Chicago. (Thanks, Erin Kelly.) She epitomized professionalism.

I was surprised to see this United States Supreme Court Justice walk in alone and make herself available to whomever approached her for a word. So, I jumped in the quickly-forming line to shake her lace-gloved hand, introduce myself and offer a few awe-struck words of admiration. I don’t think I ever shook such a small hand or one ensconced in lace. She is small in stature but large in aura.

After lunch, Justice Ginsburg delivered highlights of the last Supreme Court term with an occasional amusing turn of phrase. But afterwards, when she entertained several questions, we saw grace and professionalism on full display.

She artfully discussed cameras in the courtroom without stating a definitive position (but noting that in appellate advocacy, unlike in trials, the oral arguments are more fleeting and far less weighty than the briefs that the parties file and the “hours and hours of reading we do” in advance of oral arguments).

In response to a question about whether she and Justices Kagan and Sotomayor join in so many opinions because of their shared gender, Justice Ginsburg noted that she and Justice Kagan voted alike more than any two other justices because they analyzed cases similarly—not because they were of the same gender. She went on to relay how much perception has changed since Justice O’Connor was the sole female Supreme Court Justice for so many years and that she enjoys the fact that women are “all over the bench.” (Because they are seated by seniority, Justice Ginsburg explained that she is in the middle with Justices Kagan and Sotomayor on the left and right sides.) With women all around, she noted to applause, there is no sense that they are not there to stay.

The final question was whether she and Justice Scalia talk about work when they go to the opera. As most of us know, Justice Scalia and Ginsburg are known to espouse sharply divergent opinions when it comes to Constitutional interpretation. What may be less known is that they have been close friends since long before they were appointed to the Supreme Court, Scalia by President Reagan and Ginsburg by President Clinton. Their friendship and Justice Ginsburg’s comments manifest the civility we all should exercise with our colleagues. Justice Ginsburg expressed appreciation for the opportunity to talk about the shared love she and Justice Scalia have for opera and a special opera in development that is based on the Justices’ own words. Justice Ginsburg said the opera captures a “rage aria” by Justice Scalia and recited from memory some of the lyrics: “The Justices are blind, how can they spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!” True to her personality, she did not quote the responding lines at the lunch.

When I returned to the office, I found more information about the Scalia/Ginsburg opera, including that it was written by composer Derrick Wang who recently graduated from the University of Maryland Law School. While he was studying Constitutional law, he decided that Scalia’s fiery and bombastic dissents and Ginsburg’s demure lyrical responses would make a great opera. I also found the Ginsburg character’s retorting lines to those quoted at the lunch.

The lyrics of the Ginsburg character entreat a reasoned approach: “How many times must I tell you dear Mister Justice Scalia? You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution, to a problem that isn’t so easy to resolve. But the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that like our society, it can evolve.”

A preview of the opera was provided to the two Justices this past summer after they had finished the session and Justice Scalia had delivered his dissent in U.S. v. Windsor which struck down part of a federal anti-gay marriage law. Justice Ginsburg noted that the timing was perfect, “that after Scalia’s stirring statement in the Windsor case, [it is appropriate] that we should end up on this note emphasizing the importance of collegiality.”

Soon after completing the bar exam, Wang gave exhorted in an interview, “If they can get along and be friends, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.”

Now that’s music to my ears.

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