Stephen Breyer: The Supreme Court I Served On Was Made Up of Friends

Recently, the Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett spoke together publicly about how members of the court speak civilly to one another while disagreeing, sometimes vigorously, about the law. Considerable disagreement on professional matters among the Supreme Court justices, important as they are, remain professional, not personal. The members of the court can and do get along well personally. That matters.

In my tenure, this meant that we could listen to one another, which increased the chances of agreement or compromise. It means that the court will work better for the nation that it serves. And I wonder: If justices who disagree so profoundly can do so respectfully, perhaps it is possible for our politically divided country to do the same.

Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the court; Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the second. I remember being slightly surprised when, during a visit to meet with several European judges, they suddenly disappeared. Where had they gone? It seems they went off together to look for suitable women’s collars for their robes. They found some, and Justice Ginsburg wore them ever after.

At about the same time, Justice O’Connor reminded me that our chief justice, William Rehnquist, had decided that he too needed something distinctive on his black robe. Inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe,” he decided to enliven it with a few gold stripes on the sleeves. Justice O’Connor found at a European bookstall a picture of Lorenzo de’ Medici wearing similar stripes. She suggested that we send it to him with a special message from her.

We would do things together outside of class. Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Justice O’Connor and I would play bridge with friends and spouses (often changing partners). Today, I gather that justices who do not always agree on legal results nonetheless agree to go to hockey games or play golf together. (Why hockey in Washington, D.C., where baseball, football and basketball abound? Perhaps they just like hockey.)

As is fairly well known, Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia loved opera and became great friends. They even convinced Justice Kennedy and me to take part in a Washington Opera performance of “Die Fledermaus,” provided, of course, that we simply sat onstage on a sofa and never opened our mouths. Justice Scalia had a good musical voice, however; he, law clerks and other justices would sometimes sing at the court, joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, as well as by a friend of Justice Scalia who was a fine pianist and loved Cole Porter.

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