On Respect and Civility- Essay #3: Going to the Opera

The third in a series of essays on respect and civility.

Separate strands unite in friction
To protect our country’s core.
This, the strength of our nation,
Thus is our Court’s design:
We are kindred,
We are nine.

— Scalia/Ginsburg (opera), Derrick Wang

Last month, an unprecedented cadre of opera fans, law students, and Supreme Court groupies descended on Castelton in the green farm hills of Northern Virginia. I was among those making the pilgrimage. This area, so isolated it does not have reliable cell phone service, drew this unusual crowd for the world premiere of Scalia/Ginsburg, an opera about the two long-time rival Supreme Court Justices and friends.

The plot is relatively simple: Justice Antonin Scalia is sentenced to hell and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, his long-time rival, steps up to argue an appeal of his sentence. From this simple premise springs a fountainhead of remarkable discourse on civility in the law. During the course of this one act opera, recently penned by Derrick Wang, a composer turned lawyer, the two justices demonstrate their mutual respect, courtesy, and even friendship. Wang’s libretto [lyrics] is filled with references to the Court’s opinions and an annotated version was recently published in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts. (click here)

Many liberals in the audience (and across the country) would have been cheering Scalia’s descent into permanent silence for “spending so much of the past eight and twenty years in substantial, and possibly excessive, dissenting.” While Ginsburg suggests to Scalia that “You’d spare us such pain
If you’d just entertain this idea [of a living Constitution],” she quickly offers her help in the defense of Justice Scalia. She even volunteers to share Scalia’s sentence, saying “We serve justice together, and that means we can speak with one voice. And here, I choose to join him.” In the end, both Justices admit their friendship and their kindred spirits, saving both from the terrible sentence.

Justice Ginsburg attended the premiere and was embraced by the crowd with the largest ovation of the night — her real world achievements dwarfing the performers’ achievements in a single operatic performance. Yet the story of Scalia/Ginsburg is something larger; what is remarkable about this opera is that it provides a rare and unique vision into a shared friendship between “Nino” and “Ruth.” In these days of contemptuousness in our civil discourse, the characters in Scalia/Ginsburg have genuine affection while reaching across a great political divide.

In 225 years, only 112 individuals have donned the robes of a Supreme Court Justice. The responsibility is immense and the stakes are very high. But the Justice’s love of the law and the Constitution is a common thread woven through all of those 112 robes. In much the same way, there are around 23,000 attorneys practicing law in North Carolina. While our system is primarily adversarial, we lawyers are more alike than different. We all swore to uphold the Constitution. We all share the same rules and responsibilities. Like Ginsburg and Scalia, “We are different, we are one”— one in our reverence for the Constitution, the judiciary, and the public trust. Sometimes it takes a little opera to remind us that “We are stewards of this trust; We uphold it as we must, For the work of our Court[s] is just begun…”

James W. Kilbourne, Jr.
Dungan, Kilbourne & Stahl, PA