US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not a pushover. She’s powerful and popular—the only judge known to Americans by a hip-hop moniker—and the Notorious RBG stands up for what she believes in.
Yet her ability to fight politely is legendary, and just earned her an award. On April 10—right after Neil Gorsuch was sworn in to take the late justice Antonin Scalia’s seat on the high court—Ginsburg accepted the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life on behalf of Scalia and herself.
The award is given annually to a political, journalistic, or judicial odd couple engaging courteously across ideological divides. The liberal Ginsburg and conservative Scalia fit the criteria: They agreed on little in the way of big issues yet were close friends. Their unlikely alliance even inspired an opera.
“Each stands as a hero to those who hold their respective judicial philosophies, and each has argued passionately and poignantly for their beliefs. Yet amid those differences they forged a friendship grounded in mutual respect,” said John Mullen Jr., president of Allegheny College.
Conflict is the business of the law, and lawyers agree to disagree for a living. Supreme Court justices are no exception—they are masters of intellectual battle. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, Ginsburg schooled American politicians on the art of war, explaining that cordiality is critical to doing the job.
The justice also revealed one of the secrets to keeping the mood cordial at the high court, where there’s no shortage of disagreement on legal and political issues: “We could not do the important work the constitution assigns to the court unless we genuinely respect each other. And that respect is symbolized by the handshakes we exchange each argument day and conference morning,” the justice explained.
Of course justices don’t conference or hear oral arguments every day. But when there is a formal gathering of that kind, the justices exchange 32 handshakes between them before the day is out.
Ginsburg thinks government could use more of this cordiality. Though she didn’t mention the Gorsuch confirmation hearings and ensuing political brouhaha specifically, she pointedly noted that she and Scalia were easily confirmed by the Senate back in the day in proceedings that were “altogether civil.”
Civil is obviously not how the latest confirmation hearings could be characterized. Scalia was confirmed unanimously while Gorsuch triggered hand-wringing, accusations, a Democratic filibuster, and a Republican rule change to get their guy in. People and politicians seem to be divided along party lines and the inability to exchange is causing governmental dysfunction.
RBG urged lawmakers in the audience to show colleagues in Congress the light. “Let us hope that they—and others of goodwill— will lead in restoring harmonious work ways,” she said.