Supreme Court justices Ginsburg, Scalia receive civility award
April 10, 2017 4:02 PM
Susan Walsh/The Associated Press
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks at the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Tuesday, March 1, 2016, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg wait for the beginning of the taping of "The Kalb Report" April 17, 2014 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC.
By Tracie Mauriello / Post-Gazette Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia agreed on opera, wine, travel destinations — and not much else.
They held polar opposite views on everything from gun rights to same-sex marriage, yet their friendship endured decades of fierce debate over matters deeply affecting the country.
Their cordiality earned them Allegheny College’s annual award for civility in public life.
Justice Ginsburg and the family of the late Justice Scalia accepted the award Monday, just hours after Justice Scalia’s replacement was sworn into office, capping a drawn out confirmation that stretched the boundaries of civility.
“We are in a danger chapter of American political discourse” in which “the reflexive demonization of political adversaries is on the rise,” college president James H. Mullen said Monday.
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the nation’s first secretary of homeland security, lamented that, too. He recalled years he spent in Congress that were marked by fierce but respectful exchanges of firmly held opinions.
“When did we forget that a strong democracy champions diversity of through and embraces tolerance of the other person’s point of view?” he asked. “Civility is the balm for rigorous debate and dialogue and disagreement, and it really is the bridge to problem solving.”
Justice Ginsburg noted that members of the high court begin each argument day with handshakes — 32 by the time each has shaken the hand of everyone else. That’s a symbol, she said, of the respect the justices have for each other and for the court.
“At my workplace, collegiality really matters,” she said.
Eugene Scalia said his father, the late justice, wasn’t especially known for civility, but he did understand that views are formed through the respectful exchange of ideas, and that was important to him.
“There is nothing wrong with strongly held convictions. My father certainly had a few, and Justice Ginsburg had them, too,” said Mr. Scalia, whose mother, Maureen, also attended Monday. “My father did not like people to be wishy-washy. To him, if an issue was important enough then it was worth investing in, understanding thoroughly, and having an informed opinion on.”
Mr. Mullen said the justices were chosen for the award because their respect for each other transcended ideology, and that is what democracy demands.
“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,” he said. “As they debated with each other, they also listened to each other, they admired the rigor that the other brought to argument, and they admired the quality of the other’s mind.”
There is too little of that in government now, he said.
“Our experiment in government works best when our public servants engage each other and each others’ ideas with openness and respect,” he said. “The empathy that should grow from shared service to country and each of these fundamental premises is now at risk.”
More than 150 students, alumni, staff and friends of the college attended the presentation at the National Press Club.
Past recipients are U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and former Vice President Joe Biden; U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; journalists David Brooks and Mark Shields and the women of the U.S. Senate. In 2015, rather than recognize individuals, the college paid tribute to a moment — when former Montgomery, Ala. Police Chief Kevin Murphy handed his badge to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as a symbol of contrition for his department’s treatment of Mr. Lewis and other civil rights activists in the 1960s.
Justice Ginsburg called on the lawmakers among those past winners to lead their colleagues toward civility in Congress.
“Let us hope that they — and others of goodwill — will lead in restoring harmonious work ways,” she said.
The college created the national civility prize in 2011 to shine a light on moments in public life that highlight the kind of civility that belongs in everyday public discourse. Mr. Mullen said he hopes these examples will counterbalance the less civil moments that are becoming normalized, and to inspire Allegheny students and others toward civic engagement.
Seniors Sydney Ferandez and Yemi Olaiya already are serving as an example to fellow students, Mr. Mullen said. That’s why the school honored them Monday with its first two student awards for civility.
Ms. Olaiya, 21, of the Hill District is student government director of the Diversity Initiatives Committee, president of the Association for Advancement of Black Culture and a fellow with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, which assists with voter registration and plans social justice events.
This winter she organized “I Stand With” – a cross-campus march meant to foster solidarity among students from different walks of life who were feeling divisions on campus after a contentious presidential election.
“So many people were feeling at odds with one another, and they felt like they couldn’t be together anymore,” Ms. Olaiya said. About 200 participated.
Ms. Fernandez, 21, of West Hartford, Conn. Is co-director of student affairs for Allegheny College Student Government, a member of Ms. Olaiya’s diversity committee, a Right Start volunteer who helps teen moms at Bethesda Children’s Home, and co-founder of the Student Alliance for Prison Reform.
She learned about prison reform in a class when she was a sophomore, and immediately engaged.
“It exposed me to something I never knew about. I always thought everyone in prison is evil. I never thought about what got them there or about whether they’re there unjustly,” said Ms. Fernandez, whose group lobbies state officials for prison reform and political candidates across the country to incorporate the issue into their election platforms.
Ms. Fernandez and Ms. Olayia are natural leaders who “give me hope that in a very complicated world there are young people committed to doing good things and making the world better,” Mr. Mullen said. “In these times when there is such conflict in our country they have been so important to us in fostering conversation and dialogue across all parts of the student body.”
Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., is one of the nation’s oldest liberal arts colleges and is home to the Center for Political Participation.
Washington Bureau chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org; 703-996-9292 or on Twitter @pgPoliTweets.
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