The art of disagreeing without being disagreeable

By Leisa Boley Hellwarth, a dairy farmer and attorney near Celina

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last month at the age of 87. She famously advised “in every good marriage it helps to be a little deaf.” She attributed the advice to her mother-in-law. Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, a respected tax attorney, were married 56 years, until his death in 2010.

            Regarding marriage, Justice Ginsburg noted “if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it. I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.” She added that “Marty was an extraordinary person. Of all the boys I had dated, he was the only one who really cared I had a brain. And he was always, well, making me feel that I was better than I thought I was.”

            Justice Ginsburg claimed she followed the “be a little deaf” mantra when dealing with her colleagues on the U.S. Supreme Court. It apparently worked well there as Justice Ginsburg was the “best buddy” of Justice Antonin Scalia. These two justices were complete opposites. Justice Scalia was a staunch conservative, and Justice Ginsburg was a staunch liberal. But they enjoyed each other’s intellect and spent much time together. Much has been written about their mutual love of opera which actually led to an opera being written about their friendship.

            They both served as Justices on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals prior to their separate appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Ginsburg recalled the first time she heard Justice Scalia speak. She disagreed with nearly every word he said, but she really liked how he said it.

            Their friendship extended to their respective families. Every New Year’s Eve for 20 years, the Ginsburgs and the Scalias gathered to ring in the new year at the Ginsburg apartment in New York City. Marty Ginsburg cooked, sometimes venison or wild boar that Justice Scalia brought back from his post-Christmas hunting trips.

            My favorite story of their friendship occurred with the Virginia Military Institute case that resulted in women being granted admission because of the Supreme Court ruling. Justice Ginsburg authored the majority opinion. Justice Scalia wrote the dissenting opinion and completed it early so he could provide it to Justice Ginsburg so her majority opinion would be as strong as possible.

            Justice Ginsburg often opined that “you can disagree without being disagreeable.” It is an example our country could use now. We need to learn how to welcome debate and difference. An important element in the friendship between the two justices was that not for a moment did one think that the other should be condemned or ostracized for their opinion. Keep in mind these two were dealing with the biggest issues of the day, and they were nearly always on opposing sides.

            Justice Ginsburg also believed that “when a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.” “Don’t be distracted by emotions like anger, envy, resentment. These just zap energy and waste time.” She was a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.

            Justice Scalia’s son recalled his father giving Justice Ginsburg two dozen roses for her birthday one year. When the son questioned why since Justice Ginsburg rarely voted with Justice Scalia in his opinions, Justice Scalia informed his son that some things were more important than votes.

            After her death, Justice Scalia’s grandson recalled that he never heard Justice Scalia or Justice Ginsburg discussing the issues before the Court. What would have been the point? Time outside of the Court was for music, books, food, travel and other common interests.

            Justice Ginsburg was the second female appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She joined Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, also a close friend and a conservative. Justice Ginsburg was legendary for surviving serious illness (colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, heart surgery, lung cancer and fractured ribs) to continue to serve. She credited Justice O’Connor for setting the standard for dealing with health complications while on the court. Justice O’Connor had breast surgery, and she was on the bench nine days after the procedure. She said, “now Ruth, have your chemotherapy on a Friday. That way, you have the weekend to get over it.”

            When asked about her legacy, Justice Ginsburg replied, “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the best of her ability.” Not only did she accomplish her goal, she did so while finding common ground with those with differing opinions. You can, in fact, disagree without being disagreeable.

Leisa Boley Hellwarth is a dairy farmer and an attorney. She represents farmers throughout Ohio from her office near Celina. Her office number is 419-586-1072.

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