Supreme Court's Lesson: Hey political Branches, What About Civility?


In 2008 Ginsburg told 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl that she can be exasperated with Scalia's style at times.

But, she continued, "As annoyed as you might be about his zinging dissent, he's so utterly charming, so amusing, so sometimes outrageous, you can't help but say 'I'm glad that he's my friend' or he's my colleague,'" she added.

Civility hasn't been lost on Chief Justice John Roberts either. During President Obama's 2010 State of the Union address, the president took a rare crack at a recent court decision that had invalidated decades old federal legislation restricting corporate expenditures for electoral advocacy. Democratic senators sitting close to the justices stood up and cheered the president's words. The justices sat stoned-faced during the applause.

Roberts created a firestorm a few weeks later when he questioned whether justices should attend the event. He told an audience, "to the extent it has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we are there."

But the following year, Chief Justice Roberts showed up again with five of his colleagues.

Historically civility on the court has waned at times (read Harvard Professor Noah Feldman's book about four Roosevelt appointees aptly titled Scorpions), but retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has taken on the issue as one of her retirement projects.

After the shooting in Tucson that killed federal judge John M. Roll and six others and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, O'Connor called not only for civility in the community but in government as well.

"We must reject violence and hostility, " O'Connor, an Arizona resident, said in a statement, "and bring civility and rational dialogue into our government and community life."

Kagan suggests the court might be different from the political branches because the justices know they will deal with each other for a long time. In her talk in Aspen she told a story of how Chief Justice Roberts was the first to call and warmly congratulate her after her confirmation.

"You know we are going to be serving together for 25 years" he told her.

"Only 25? " she responded.

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