Bipartisan friendship is a civil solution to political dysfunction

Few jurists have managed to capture the attention and imagination of American society like Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “odd couple” who built a lasting friendship despite their diametrically-opposed legal views.

Because of their dedication to finding common ground across an ideological chasm, the two were honored earlier this month with the annual Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life. In our polarized society, we hope that fans of Scalia and Ginsburg — including newly appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch — will take a page from their heroes.


There’s a reason why we celebrate these types of friendships. Bipartisan relationships in Washington shouldn’t merely be encouraged — they’re essential to our democracy. But with heightened attention on an elected official’s every decision, it has become commonplace for public figures to demonize members of another political party and steadfastly avoid working together.


Highly-mobilized partisan voters reward candidates who pursue extremist, uncompromising agendas. These conditions are degrading civility in Washington and, in turn, grinding progress to a halt.

These same mobilized partisans have spent decades celebrating the careers of Justices Scalia and Ginsburg. In nearly 30 years on the Supreme Court, Scalia became a conservative icon among Republicans for his outspoken views of constitutional originalism and a staunch opposition to government overreach. Scalia cultivated a tenacious persona through his biting opinions, labeling Affordable Care Act provisions as “interpretive jiggery-pokery,” and the Supreme Court’s landmark gay marriage decision a “judicial Putsch.”

In stark contrast to Scalia, the octogenarian Ginsburg has emerged in popular culture as the “Notorious RBG,” a bold liberal crusader celebrated by Democrats for bolstering the rights of women and minorities, long disenfranchised in American history.

Devotees of these two jurists most often praise them for their ability to set boundaries on ideology — the extent to which they’ve carved out a liberal or conservative defense of healthcare, voting rights, criminal justice, or gun ownership. But these supporters stop short of recognizing a lasting part of the two justices’ legacy. It’s time we start following their example of an uncharacteristic ability to build bridges.

Scalia and his wife Maureen famously celebrated each New Years’ Eve with Ginsburg and her husband Marty. In 2015, Scalia described their pairing as the “odd couple.” After Scalia passed in 2016, Ginsburg described them as “best buddies,” saying in a statement that it was her “great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

Beyond their commitment to their competing ideologies, Scalia and Ginsburg truly embody civility — the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. As members of the Supreme Court, the stakes resulting from their decision-making couldn’t have been higher for the American people.

But in the words of Justice Scalia to CBS’ 60 Minutes, the conflict would stop after the case was settled: “I attack ideas. I don’t attack people. And some very good people have some very bad ideas. And if you can’t separate the two, you gotta get another day job.”

Thankfully, this approach isn’t completely absent in Washington. Even in our sharply divided Congress, many lawmakers have proved capable of the relationship that Scalia and Ginsburg shared, including Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE and Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainObama book excerpt: 'Hard to deny my overconfidence' during early health care discussions Mark Kelly releases Spanish ad featuring Rep. Gallego More than 300 military family members endorse Biden MORE (R-Ariz.), former Sens. Ted Kennedy ( and Trent Lott, and former House Speaker Tip O’Neill and President Ronald Reagan.

In Congress, the women U.S. senators continue a tradition, started by Senator Barbara MikulskiBarbara Ann MikulskiForeign policy congressional committees need to call more women experts Lobbying World Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE, of meeting monthly for dinner, fostering a collegial environment that crosses partisan lines. These relationships have historically led to groundbreaking compromise. The agreement to end the 2013 government shutdown started among women U.S. senators.

Staunch conservatives and ardent liberals have to start recognizing that an uncompromising approach in Washington – and the belief that all politics is zero sum – will leave everyone at a disadvantage. In 2016, more than 55 percent of Americans told Gallup that they had very little or no confidence at all in Congress, up 25 percent from two decades earlier. When lawmakers refuse to work together and find common ground, our country and our democracy suffer.

Ginsburg eulogized Scalia at his 2016 funeral and quoted an opera written in their honor: “We were different, yes, in our interpretation of written text, yet one in our reverence for the Court and its place in the U.S. system of governance.”

We owe it to future generations to create more relationships in Washington like the one shared by Justices Scalia and Ginsburg.

Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer, Ph.D., is executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse, an organization that works to reduce political dysfunction and incivility in our political system.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.