Political friendships and the Supreme Court

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


Post-election politics has brought about more of the same heated rhetoric, division, and lack of charity that was par for the political course running up to Nov. 8. While the situation easily drives one to despair for our cultural situation, a silver lining can be found in a prominent, albeit obscure-to-most academic publication. 

The silver lining is the most recently published issue of the Harvard Law Review. The issue is dedicated to Justice Antonin Scalia (may he rest in peace). The opening pages contain a handful of tributes to the late Justice Scalia by close friends and colleagues, including three sitting justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. The tributes model civil discourse, generosity, and charity that could only have as its source the very heart of God.

It was no surprise to read Chief Justice John Roberts’ words of praise for and friendship with Justice Scalia. As fellow conservatives and Catholics on the bench, they undoubtedly shared many deep values about law and faith. The Chief Justice wrote about Justice Scalia’s devotion toward family, jovial spirit, and sharp legal acumen. In the end, it was no small compliment for the Chief Justice to call Justice Scalia “our man for all seasons” (a clear reference to the life of St. Thomas More).

Even more moving than the accolades of the Chief Justice were the reflections by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan. On the major social issues (e.g., abortion, same-sex marriage, religious liberty), there could hardly be a bigger divide between Justice Scalia and Justices Ginsburg and Kagan. Yet, reading their homages, one could sense deep respect, closeness, and devotion, cutting across ideological divides that separated the justices.

While noting deep differences of values, Justice Ginsburg recalled numerous fond memories. She shared their time singing duets for the Washington National Opera, his care and concern for her during major illness, and even a shopping adventure. Most notably, she shared Justice Scalia’s response when asked how the two maintained a deep friendship in spite of major disagreements: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people…. [S]ome very good people have some very bad ideas…. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job.”

Justice Kagan shared rich treasures of her friendship with Justice Scalia. She stressed how Justice Scalia sharpened her own legal skills and led her to “mak[e] my own argument more precise and rigorous” and “work harder and dig deeper, to search for arguments that would be able to withstand his mighty ripostes[.]” She called to mind numerous hunting trips where conversations transcended the legal arguments of the Court and delved into discussions about the joy of family, the meaning of faith, and the other pleasures of life.

Hidden in all of this is the deep witness of Justice Scalia’s life. This was a man who took faith seriously and, thereby, joyfully lived out the call of charity toward God and neighbor. While our own age would consider relationships with those who are “political enemies” or “on the wrong side of the issue” outside the bounds of friendship, Justice Scalia was moved by respect for the human person born out of the love of Christ—a love unbound by any division.

Justice Scalia understood that a true encounter with the other is not subject to limitations. The fruit of his encounter with others was a love that was reciprocated with respect, friendship, and charity, even by those who would be considered his ideological archenemies.

The intimate friendships shared by Justice Scalia and Justices Ginsburg and Kagan are worthy of praise. These testimonies offer a semblance of hope in a political culture gone toxic. They offer a glimpse into a style of political discourse and dialogue—in search for meaning and truth—that is rooted in mutual respect and charity.

We would do well to take note of these relationships and, pray God, imitate their merits during a time when political discourse seems to lack even the slightest traces of decency. Let us be leaven and light in the domain of politics which ultimately belongs to Christ the King.
The full tributes are available to read online at: http://harvardlawreview.org/2016/11/in-memoriam-justice-antonin-scalia/.