Congress should take a lesson on civility from the Supreme Court

Congress should take a lesson on civility from the Supreme Court
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“Stupid,” “weak-kneed,” “xenophobic,” “supine” and “racist.” These are just some of the words members of Congress have used to describe one another in recent weeks. And although nearly 70 percent of Americans say that personal insults are “never fair game,” lawmakers continue to lob them at one another with increasing regularity in floor speeches, press releases and fiery tweets.

Now imagine a Supreme Court justice using similar insults to describe another justice. 

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This, of course, would be preposterous. But why? After all, the ideological divide in the Supreme Court is just as sharp as it is in Congress, and each justice – like members of Congress — came to Washington with a unique set of strong principles and beliefs. Yet by most reports, Supreme Court justices are collegial in chambers, and there have been no incidents of the justices insulting one another in the press.

 

So what’s the secret to the Supreme Court’s civility? The justices may tell you it’s simple: Spend more time with your colleagues. In interviews, the justices have spoken fondly about the court’s commitment to group lunches, birthday parties and “pre-State of the Union feasts.” And through these experiences, many of the justices have developed strong friendships. Perhaps the most interesting friendship to develop in recent years was between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia. They served together on the court for over 20 years and, during that time, while Ginsberg and Scalia rarely agreed on hot-button issues, they were nonetheless known to vacation and attend the opera together.

Members of Congress should take note. This is not to say that members should start booking joint vacations to Bermuda or grabbing tickets to see La Traviata at the Kennedy Center, but congressional leaders should strive to promote greater collegiality among members. After all, collegiality was not always exclusive to the Supreme Court. Indeed, there are plenty of anecdotes of congressional members in past decades fighting on the floor and then retreating together to the many bars and restaurants that surround the Capitol. 

This sort of collegiality shouldn’t only take place behind the scenes. The Supreme Court is a good example of this precept. On argument days, although the justices often interrupt the advocates before them, they usually refrain from interrupting each other. Furthermore, when advocates cleverly dodge a question presented by one justice, another justice will occasionally use their time to return to an issue previously raised by their colleague. And unlike members of Congress, justices do not sit according to ideology. Instead, justices sit according to seniority, which offers some interesting legal pairings: President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump averages highest approval rating of his presidency in second quarter: Gallup GOP House campaign chair condemns 'send her back' chants: 'There's no place for that kind of talk' GOP lawmaker decries 'send her back' chants: 'This ugliness must end' MORE’s appointee, Justice Neil Gorsuch, for example, sits next to Justice Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama’s first appointee.

Now imagine a similar scene on the House floor — Republicans offering Democrats more debate time, or Democratic Sen. Chuck SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerLawmakers pay tribute to late Justice Stevens Trump administration denies temporary immigrant status to Venezuelans in US Colombian official urges more help for Venezuelan migrants MORE (D-N.Y.) and Republican Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzGoogle official denies allegations of ties to China The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet Cruz in 2016 said 'something fundamentally wrong' with Christians who back Trump: book MORE (R-Texas) sitting together during the State of the Union or another joint meeting of Congress.

Some may claim efforts toward greater civility are futile. They will cite the increased demand for members to return to their home districts on the weekends, the threat of a primary challenger if members appear too bipartisan, or the pressure from influential donors to reject compromise. None of these concerns can be waved away. However, none of them preclude lawmakers from being civil to one another.

Fortunately, some members of Congress are trying to change that. Earlier this year, Reps. Steve StiversSteven (Steve) Ernst StiversOvernight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker House approves amendment to reverse transgender military ban Fed chief: Facebook crypto project poses 'serious concerns' for economy, consumers MORE, R-Ohio, and Joyce BeattyJoyce Birdson BeattyThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question CBC lawmakers rip Justice Democrats for targeting black lawmakers for primaries The Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi looks to tamp down Dem infighting MORE, D-Ohio, launched the Congressional Civility and Respect Caucus, which aims “to restore civility and respect in our political discourse.” This is good first step. Although the caucus is currently focused on promoting “respectful dialogue,” it should also press congressional leadership to follow the Supreme Court’s commitment to civility among colleagues. Doing so may very well help improve our souring political discourse.

As Justice Gorsuch summarized in a recent speech, “It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.” All of us — Congress included — would do better to follow the court’s lead.

Anthony Marcum is a research associate for the Governance Project at the R Street Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to promoting limited government.