Allard: We Should Act More Like Justices

Why I love the Supreme Court justices and you should too.

by Sydney Allard | 4/19/19 2:05am

If you’ve never been to a Supreme Court hearing, I would highly recommend it. There are some things that even recordings miss. I did not learn in my constitutional law class that the justices sit through much of oral arguments with their faces cupped in their palms, eyes almost closed. They behave like bored students in a 9L lecture, bouncing and swiveling in the nation’s most esteemed wheelie chairs. If not for seeing it with my own eyes, I would not have believed that Justices Stephen Breyer and Clarence Thomas (one liberal and one extremely conservative) could lean back almost out of view of the public and giggle together at their inside jokes.

Over winter break this year, I went to the Supreme Court to hear oral arguments. The question before the Court was an interesting one — was nearly half of the state of Oklahoma technically an Indian reservation? — but it was the justices’ behavior that piqued my interest the most. It grew my faith in the Court and, more importantly, offered a model for cooperation even in today’s hyper-partisan environment.

I always imagined the justices in two cliques, one right of center and one left, with one swing justice stuck in the middle, constantly persuaded to join one side or the other with free opera tickets and maybe frozen yogurt. That vision sprung, I think, from the division that I see in our politics and society. Senators on both sides of the aisle seem completely unwilling to compromise with each other. Some students label themselves Democrats or, more rarely, Republicans, and each side seems loathe to have an open conversation with the other.

I do not claim to know the true feelings of the justices toward each other. But while I was sitting in that courtroom, I got an unshakable feeling that they were dear friends. Though there’s plenty that goes on behind the scenes that I can never know, the justices’ respect for one another was unmistakable. Justice Sonia Sotomayor would make a salient point, and then Justice Samuel Alito would reference it, credit his colleague and build on the idea — even if he ultimately disagreed with her. When I visited the Supreme Court, I saw nine of the most brilliant and divergent minds in our country sit together and genuinely listen to one another rather than lecture each other or raise their voices.  

It is easy to feel hopeless about our country these days. The contempt between political parties, the sensationalism and divisiveness of our media and a widespread unwillingness to compromise can make things feel unfixable. The Supreme Court justices give me hope in spite of it all. They disagree deeply on issues, but they don’t let that fact prevent mutual respect, cooperation and friendship from forming. 

The Supreme Court should serve as an example for a divided America.

The justices seem to hold each other in esteem and, in general, view their differences with curiosity rather than contempt. A docent told me that Justice Antonin Scalia frequently modified his initial views after reading his colleagues’ ideas, such that his ultimate vote was sometimes the opposite of his initial response. Scalia was passionate, but he was also curious and open to other ideas. That sort of listening to be convinced can feel rare today, but it provides an example of how disagreement ought to function. 

Those same norms should carry over into everyday society. Laypeople too should be able to disagree with each other without being labelled ignorant, amoral or worse. After witnessing a Supreme Court hearing, I, for one, will approach my debates with friends and classmates with more tenderness, patience and open-mindedness. 

Just as the Justices’ discord is a testament to the complexity of the issues they face, their respect for each other is a testament to their wisdom. As Socrates put it, a wise man is “he who knows that he knows nothing.” The justices may know a lot, but their eagerness to learn from each other reveals a wisdom befitting of the honorable justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. And beyond that, the justices’ example is worthy of everyone’s consideration. It offers an example of respectful disagreement and civility, things so often lacking in our nation. Healing the country’s divisions will require effort, but perhaps the Supreme Court offers a model of the kind of society worth striving for.