The friendship between Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia was an unlikely one. Ginsburg was a trailblazer—the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, she dedicated her career to fighting for gender equality both on and off the bench. Scalia was a self-proclaimed originalist, well-known for his steadfast conservative opinions and his colorful, scathing dissents.
The two were the best of friends, famously sharing a love of opera and often attending performances together. Their friendship and love of the art form even inspired an opera of their own, written about their singular relationship.
Ginsburg and Scalia’s friendship, and the former congeniality of Supreme Court politics, figure heavily in the new documentary on Ginsburg’s life, Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in Her Own Words. The film, written and directed by Freida Lee Mock, comes out in virtual cinemas today.
Ruth follows the trajectory of the late justice’s career, from her time at the American Civil Liberties Union to her final cases as a Supreme Court justice. Along the way, we hear from the people whose lives were directly impacted by her work. People like Lilly Ledbetter, who took her employment discrimination case to the Supreme Court, and former Virginia state Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, who has promised to appoint an all pro-choice cabinet if she’s elected governor in the fall. Carroll Foy was one of the first Black women to graduate from the Virginia Military Institute, which only admitted men until the landmark 1996 Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Virginia. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion that forced the college to begin admitting women, opening the door for students like Carroll Foy.
The interpersonal dynamics of the Court and around Ginsburg’s ascent to the bench are a throughline in the film. Footage from her confirmation hearing offers a stark contrast to the hearings we’ve seen in recent years.
When Ginsburg is asked about her views on abortion and Roe v. Wade, she states clearly that the Court has long upheld a woman’s right to choose. When she is pressed on the issue, though, she demurs—she says that because it is a question that would likely come before her as a justice, it would be improper for her to expand on her thoughts. This maneuver came to be known as the “Ginsburg rule,” the refusal to answer questions in a confirmation hearing about an issue that could come before the Court. (We famously saw Ginsburg’s replacement on the bench, Amy Coney Barrett, misuse the Ginsburg rule to dodge questions about everything from her beliefs about abortion to health care.)
And while Ginsburg faced opposition from conservative groups at her hearing in 1993, there was an air of respect from both sides of the aisle for her legal scholarship and judicial career. Ginsburg would go on to be confirmed almost unanimously—with only three senators voting against her nomination.
This dynamic is completely unrecognizable when compared to the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett, and to the current makeup of the Court—one with a conservative supermajority, and arguably the widest political gulf between the conservative and liberal justices in recent history.
The congeniality among the justices and members of Congress feels like a relic—and the documentary gives it a glossy treatment. What a rarified sight to see Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, sing Ginsburg’s praises at her confirmation hearing, and to see Ginsburg eulogize Scalia, despite their long-established disagreements on the bench.
But while the niceties of yesteryear might seem preferable to the rabid partisanship of the current political climate, Ruth leaves room for reflection: Were we really better off when we were buddy-buddy with people who wanted to see us stripped of our rights?
People like Hatch and Scalia were never our friends. Anyone who’s spent any time in a law classroom knows the Federalist Society is more than just self-proclaimed originalists in the classroom. Their beliefs on who does and doesn’t deserve justice, and whose rights should be recognized under the law, permeate their whole worldview—it’s there when they’re arguing in front of a judge, and when they’re ordering drinks at a bar. And this has always been true—whether they were being polite to people like Ginsburg at her confirmation hearing, or frothing at the mouth at the thought of blocking the nomination of an alleged gang rapist.
These days, the masks are off, and it’s near impossible to feign cordiality with conservatives who openly supported a white supremacist. Conservatives who have vocally supported Trump leave no doubt about who they are: They oppose abortion access, they deny climate change, they fight against better access to health care. You can hear the division on the Court too. Even Justice Elena Kagan, arguably the last liberal holdout who might exhibit some of that diplomacy, seems palpably fed up in her recent dissents. I can only imagine the tenor behind closed doors.
And perhaps this is for the best. No disrespect to Ginsburg or her friendship with Scalia—but if we are going to move toward real change, it’s time to stop being friends with the people intent on harming us.