The Ginsburg and Scalia Show: “Best buddies” on and off the bench

The late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were best friends, off and on the bench

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The late Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were best friends, off and on the bench. Despite their sharp ideological differences on interpreting the law and Constitution, they shared much in common: their New York roots (he from Queens, she from Brooklyn); sharp intellects; cute family nicknames ("Kiki" for Ginsburg, "Nino" for Scalia); prior work as law professors; and a love of opera, fine food, and wine.

The two became close professionally when both served on the DC Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in the 1980s. Scalia made the jump to the Supreme Court in 1986, Ginsburg joined him seven years later. They served together on the high court for more than 22 years, before Scalia’s sudden death in 2016.

These quotes are based on individual interviews, writings, and seminars, as well as several public events where the two appeared together in conversation.

Ginsburg tribute in remembrance after Scalia's death, February 14, 2016

"Toward the end of the opera 'Scalia/Ginsburg,' tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: 'We are different, we are one,' different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the 'applesauce” and “argle bargle'—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his 'energetic fervor,' 'astringent intellect,' 'peppery prose,' 'acumen,' and 'affability,' all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp...  It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend."


GINSBURG:  "I disagreed with most of what he said, but I loved the way he said it."   

In Ginsburg's chambers was a photo of a trip to India, where both are riding an elephant. She sits in the back of the pachyderm, while Scalia is up front. 

GINSBURG:  "It was a rather bumpy ride."

SCALIA (INTERRUPTING):  " “And some of her feminist friends gave me a hard time – or gave her a hard time – because she rode behind me on the elephant. Big deal. I’m not kidding,”

GINSBURG (INTERRUPTING):  "The driver explained it was a matter of distribution of weight."

One of Ginsburg's most important opinions she authored was a 1996 high court ruling striking down Virginia Military Institute's all-male admissions policy.

She later called Scalia's dissent "Far inferior in every way." But Ginsburg added that while his "spicy dissent ruined my weekend," it actually had the effect of strengthening her own controlling legal reasoning.


Scalia on why he does not attend the State of the Union address, and why Ginsburg needs fortification to do so:

SCALIA:   "The State of the Union is not something I write on my calendar.  It has turned into a childish spectacle, and I don't think that I want to be there to lend dignity to it."

GINSBURG:  "I did fall asleep, as I often do. The audience for the most part is awake because they [members of Congress] are bobbing up and down and we sit there, stone faced. But we're not, at least I was not 100% sober." She added wine brought to pre-speech dinner at the Court was to blame. "I vowed this year — just sparkling water—stay away from the wine — but the dinner was so delicious it needed wine."

SCALIA:  "That's the first intelligent thing you've done."

SCALIA:  "Call us the odd couple. She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like — except her views on the law. We agree on a whole lot of stuff. Ruth is really bad only on the knee-jerk stuff.”

Scalia was once asked,  "If you had to spend the rest of your life on a desert island with [Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe or [former New York Governor]  Mario Cuomo, which would you choose?″  Scalia's answer: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Scalia recalled a trip to the south of France with his wife and the Ginsburgs, and Ruth decided on a whim to go parasailing.

"Ruth-- honest to goodness-- went up behind a motor boat. I mean she's so light you would think she would never come down. I would not do that in a thousand years.”


Christopher Scalia (son the justice) on her father and Ginsburg serving together on the DC federal appeals court:   "Justice Ginsburg... said that when... they used to be on a court together before the Supreme Court, and they sat next to each other, my dad used to whisper jokes to her. She would have to pinch herself so that she didn’t audibly laugh and kind of disrupt the courtroom.”

The Ginsburgs and the Scalias made it a tradition to spend most New Year's Eves together, where Scalia, an avid hunter would often bring the main dish for Ruth's husband Martin, an avid cook. The slogan of the parties: “Scalia kills it and Marty cooks it.”

SCALIA:  Ruth’s the only one from whom I recall regularly receiving comments for improvements rather than corrections [in opinions]. Not 'this is wrong, Nino' but 'the point would be even stronger if.' And maybe I’m the only judge that appreciated receiving them. Ruth and I had developed something of a mutual improvement society."

SCALIA:  “If you can’t disagree ardently with your colleagues about some issues of law and yet personally still be friends, get another job, for Pete’s sake.”

GINSBURG  “I was fascinated by him because he was so intelligent and so amusing. You could still resist his position, but you just had to like him.”

SCALIA:  "She is an intelligent woman and a nice woman and a considerate woman — all the qualities that you like in a person."

GINSBURG:  "I have always enjoyed Nino. "No matter how overworked and tired I feel, he can always say things that make me laugh. He can also say things I find provocative, even irritating."

SCALIA: “[Ruth] was the best of colleagues as she was the best of friends. I wish her a hundred years.”

GINSBURG ON SCALIA:  “I love him. But sometimes I’d like to strangle him.”