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Scalia V. Ginsburg: Supreme Court Sparring, Put To Music

Jul 10, 2013
Originally published on July 11, 2013 12:39 pm

On the day after the Supreme Court concluded its epic term in June, two of the supreme judicial antagonists, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, met over a mutual love: opera.

When it comes to constitutional interpretation, the conservative Scalia and the liberal Ginsburg are leaders of the court's two opposing wings. To make matters yet more interesting, the two have been friends for decades, since long before Scalia was named to the court by President Reagan and Ginsburg by President Clinton.

Ginsburg likes Scalia because he makes her laugh; Scalia likes Ginsburg because she laughs at his jokes; and the two love to spar over ideas. What unites them, though, is opera.

Enter Derrick Wang, a talented musician who has just graduated from the University of Maryland's Carey School of Law.

Wang is composing an opera entitled Scalia/Ginsburg, based on the justices' own words and using musical themes and styles of other composers from Verdi to Puccini and Bizet. The University of Maryland plans to premiere excerpts this fall, and it will get a partial airing next spring from the Washington National Opera and its young artists program.

In the meantime, at the Supreme Court, Scalia and Ginsburg got a preview in the East Conference Room on June 27 with a small audience of law clerks and staff on hand.

The germ of Wang's idea came as he was plowing through Supreme Court legal opinions in law school, including Scalia's dissents.

"I realized this is the most dramatic thing I've ever read in law school ... and I started to hear music — a rage aria about the Constitution," Wang said. "And then, in the midst of this roiling rhetoric, counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg's words appeared to me — a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, 'This is an opera.' "

He wrote to the justices to ask if he could put their words to music. Scalia and Ginsburg quickly responded that Wang did not need their permission, in view of the First Amendment. But he got their blessing anyway.

So, an opera was born, based on the two justices' personalities — Scalia's, bombastic, and Ginsburg's, demure — and their ideological disagreements. Like all births, this one had a midwife: opera lover and Maryland adjunct law professor Mike Walker, who was "blown away" when Wang approached him about his composition. Walker has mentored the composer and the project ever since.

Constitutional Interpretation, In Song

As the plot unfolds, the two justices find themselves locked in a room, and the only way out is to agree on a constitutional approach. A grumpy Scalia fulminates:

The justices are blind — how can they possibly spout this?

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!

This right that they've enshrined — when did the document sprout this?

The Framers wrote and signed words that endured without this;

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!

When Ginsburg enters, Scalia implores her, to strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner," asking why she can't seem to read the Constitution properly.

Oh, Ruth, can you read? You're aware of the text.

Yet so proudly you've failed to derive its true meaning.

Finally, he tells her there is no way he is changing his mind. He will fight on.

You will do well not to doubt this:

Since I have not resigned, I will proceed to shout this.

The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this!

Ginsburg replies with calm reason, asking Scalia to consider a different approach.

How many times must I tell you, dear Mister Justice Scalia,

You'd spare us such pain if you'd just entertain this idea.

You are searching in vain for a bright-line solution,

To a problem that isn't so easy to solve.

But the beautiful thing about our Constitution is that

Like our society, it can evolve.

Our Founders, of course, were men of great vision, she says, but their culture restricted how far they could go. So to us, they bequeathed the decision to allow certain meanings to flourish and grow.

We are freeing the people we used to hold captive, who deserve to be more than just servants or wives.

If we hadn't been willing to be so adaptive, can you honestly say we'd have led better lives?

In his finale, Scalia replies with characteristic flourish, on a soaring high note, followed by this harrumph: "Anyway, that's my view, and it happens to be correct."

'A Great Diva'

After the performance, the two justices congratulated Wang and the two singers, both Peabody Conservatory graduates: tenor Peter Scott Drackley, who sang the Scalia role, and soprano Kimberly Christie, who sang the Ginsburg role.

"It was wonderful," Scalia said, adding, "If I had my choice, I'd be a tenor."

In fact, he says, he's "a crypto-tenor" — meaning, he's a baritone.

As for Ginsburg, she just sighs.

"The truth is, if God could give me any talent in the world, I would be a great diva."

Instead, she is the court's diva, playing regularly opposite divo Antonin Scalia. Their run resumes on the first Monday in October, when the new term begins.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to end this half hour of our program with an unusual scoop from two justices of the Supreme Court. Last month, an historic term ended with big decisions on gay marriage, voting rights and affirmative action. And soon thereafter, the justices fled town for a little R&R.

But just before they left town, two justices known for their opposing views - Justice Antonin Scalia, leader of the court's conservative wing, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, leader of the liberal wing - invited NPR's Nina Totenberg to hear their arguments set to music.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In that last Lollapalooza of a legal week, Scalia and Ginsburg each dissented loudly from the bench, but never together.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: Still, the day after the gavel banged to end the term, the two happily sat and listened to a replay in song of their long-running constitutional duel. The two love to spar over ideas but are united in their love of opera, which is what brought them together on this day, to the east conference room of the Supreme Court. They were hearing a preview of an opera about their supreme disagreements.

The composer is Derrick Wang, a talented musician who, while in law school at the University of Maryland, became fascinated by Justice Scalia's dissents.

DERRICK WANG: I realized this is the most dramatic thing I've ever read in law school.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: That's Wang introducing the opera to the justices and their law clerks. The idea for his composition began when he read Scalia's dissents and he heard music.

WANG: A rage aria...

(LAUGHTER)

WANG: ...about the Constitution and then counterpoint, as Justice Ginsburg's words appeared to me, a beacon of lyricism with a steely strength and a fervent conviction all their own. And I said to myself, this is an opera.

TOTENBERG: And so, an opera was born, entitled "Scalia/Ginsburg." Wang wrote to the justices asking permission to put their words to music and as they later put it...

JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I think Justice Scalia said: How could you stop it? We have the First Amendment.

(LAUGHTER)

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: They didn't need our permission to do this.

TOTENBERG: The opera is based on the two justices' well-known personalities - his bombastic, hers demure - and their ideological disagreements.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TOTENBERG: As the plot unfolds, the two justices find themselves locked in a room and the only way to get out is to agree on a constitutional approach. A grumpy Justice Scalia, played by tenor Peter Scott Drackley, fulminates about how his fellow justices are blind. How can they possibly spout these new rights, rights that the framers nowhere enshrined?

PETER SCOTT DRACKLEY: (as Justice Scalia) (Singing) The justices are blind. How can they possibly spout this? The Constitution says absolutely nothing about this...

TOTENBERG: When Justice Ginsburg enters, Scalia implores her, to a familiar tune, asking why she can't seem to can read the Constitution's text and its clear meaning.

DRACKLEY: (as Justice Scalia) (Singing) Oh, Ruth, can you read? You're aware of the text. Yet so proudly you've failed to derive its true meaning...

TOTENBERG: Justice Ginsburg, played by soprano Kimberly Christie, replies with calm reason, asking Scalia to just consider a different idea.

KIMBERLY CHRISTIE: (as Justice Ginsburg) (Singing) How many times must I tell you, Dear Mr. Justice Scalia, you'd spare us such pain if you'd just entertain this idea...

TOTENBERG: The idea being that the Founders bequeathed to later generations the meaning of certain constitutional rights, allowing them to flourish.

CHRISTIE: (as Justice Ginsburg) (Singing) Ah and grow, oh-oh-oh...

TOTENBERG: In his finale, Scalia replies that the Founders gave us a rigid framework to rise.

DRACKLEY: (as Justice Scalia) (Singing) We shall rise. Anyway, that's my view and it happens to be correct.

(APPLAUSE)

TOTENBERG: After the performance, the two justices congratulated the composer and performers.

SCALIA: It was wonderful. The music was wonderful. You know, if I had my choice I'd be a tenor.

TOTENBERG: Scalia calls himself a crypto tenor, meaning not. As for Ginsburg, she just sighs.

GINSBURG: The truth is if God could give me any talent in the world, I would be a great diva.

TOTENBERG: Instead, she is the Court's diva, playing regularly opposite divo Antonin Scalia. Their run resumes on the first Monday in October when the new term begins.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

DRACKLEY: (as Justice Scalia) (Singing) Since I have not resigned. I will seem to shout this. The Constitution thrives, absolutely nothing about...

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.