The social lives of Supreme Court justices
In 2006, Stephen Colbert was the featured entertainer at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner, where he skewered everyone in the room. His satirical speech was cutting and spared no one, and it was greeted with a stony reception and tepid applause. Colbert, it seemed, had misjudged the crowd and bombed.
"When it was over, no one was even making eye contact with me," Colbert told his studio audience in February. "The one exception was Antonin Scalia."
Two days after the Supreme Court justice died, Colbert paid tribute with this story about their one encounter. Scalia, the butt of one of Colbert's jokes at the dinner, had walked over to praise the comedian. "Great stuff, great stuff," he said, laughing, before turning to leave. Colbert was stunned and moved: "I watched him go and I thought, ‘Don't make me love you, old man.' I will forever be grateful for that moment of human contact that he gave me."
We tend to see the justices through the prism of the court — dark robes, stern questions, and pundits endlessly debating their politics, their cases, their decisions, and even their slightest utterance. (Thomas speaks!) But then there are these chance encounters — at a dinner, a baseball game, the opera — that give Washington the rare opportunity to see them in a different, more interesting light.
"They're just normal people," says NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. "They weren't always judges."
Normal if you call a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court, or being revered and feared by millions of people you've never met, normal. But yes, they are real people, too, with real social lives.
Well, sort of.
Although it's impossible to say definitively that Scalia was the most social of all Supreme Court justices, he was certainly unusual: extroverted, confident, quick to laugh, accessible. Even people who fundamentally disagreed with his decisions concede that he was a great charmer. Plain and simple, the man loved a good party.
He was a regular at dinners, embassy receptions, book signings. It wasn't unusual to find him at the annual White House correspondents' dinner or mingling with power brokers at the Alfalfa Club. At the court, he handed out candy at Halloween and led carols at Christmas. He played in a weekly poker game for very low stakes.
"He was infinitely interesting and interested," says Tom Goldstein, a Washington appellate lawyer and founder of SCOTUSblog, the influential must-read covering the court. "Scalia loved people and life really fully."
At a memorial service in March attended by all eight justices, there was story after story about Scalia's zest for people who could entertain, challenge, debate, and educate him. He loved to tease and joke, especially with his clerks and close friends. And he was devoted to those friendships — regardless of politics — that allowed him to easily move through Washington's various salons.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg fondly recalled her closest friend on the court, who always gave her roses on her birthday and shared her reverence for the law. Scalia was once asked, she told the audience, how they could be such dear friends with such different views. "Justice Scalia answered, 'I attack ideas. I don't attack people. Some very good people have some very bad ideas. If you can't separate the two, you'd better get another day job.'"
Sonia Sotomayor is probably closest to Scalia in personality: outgoing and accustomed to interacting with her clerks, neighbors, and community. Last year, she enjoyed a high-profile lunch in New York with George Clooney and his wife, Amal — the human-rights lawyer worked for Sotomayor as a student at New York University's law school.
Sotomayor didn't automatically jump at the chance to serve on the Supreme Court, because she worried that it might cramp her lifestyle, says U.S. District Judge Frederic Block. In his book Disrobed, Block writes that she loved being a federal judge, loved New York, loved dating and dancing. The significance of being the first Hispanic justice won out, but her social life crashed, because she spent most of her time catching up on cases. "Being a judge is a surprisingly monastic existence," says Above the Law founder David Lat, who writes about courts, judges, and the legal profession.
Fact is, the justices answer to no one and are required to be in Washington only when the court is in session. So if and when they socialize is entirely a question of taste and temperament. Former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor popped up at events all the time; former Justice David Souter was never seen out during all his years on the bench.
Chief Justice John Roberts is the most reserved of the current justices and very mindful that everything they do represents the court. "There is this feeling that they have to be separate and apart from politics," says Lat. Ginsburg is naturally shy but attends several cultural events a week. "She wants to be out there, but I don't think small talk comes naturally to her," he says.
Stephen Breyer is extroverted but not much for chitchat; he loves a deep, serious conversation. Anthony Kennedy and Elena Kagan can be very charming when they go out socially, which is rare. And most people think that Clarence Thomas is an introvert because he rarely appears in public, but Goldstein says that's wrong: "People have a gross misunderstanding because he doesn't ask questions during oral arguments. In the Supreme Court building, he is the most beloved justice. He is unbelievably gregarious, knows every staffer's name."
Samuel Alito called himself "nerdy" and "a very boring person" in a 2014 American Spectator interview. Not true, but he's pretty low-key in public. Two years ago, he and his wife were turned away from a busy restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut. Alito was being honored at Yale that weekend, but the hostess had no idea who he was. Alito left without pulling the "Do you know who I am?" card; when informed of the VIP she'd rejected, the hostess shrugged. "Well, he should have made a reservation," she said. "We get very busy for brunch."
The reality is that most people outside Washington are hard-pressed to name all the justices, much less recognize them without their robes. Justice Kennedy was once stopped on the steps in front of the Supreme Court building by tourists who handed him a camera and giddily asked him to take their picture — without ever recognizing their ad hoc photographer.
If you do stalk justices — in the polite, geeky way of Washington — they're usually found at legal, cultural, or bipartisan events. In ways that their predecessors could never have envisioned, they have become celebrities off the bench. Who would have predicted Notorious RBG?
The best shot at seeing them together is the Shakespeare Theatre Company's annual mock trial, a fundraiser Justice Kennedy founded in 1994 that puts classic plays on trial. The Kennedy Center is another good bet: Scalia loved the opera (and appeared onstage a few times with Ginsburg); Kennedy goes to the ballet; Breyer loves classical music; and Roberts likes the Kennedy Center Honors. And Ginsburg, who's genuinely passionate about the arts, is at a play, a concert, or a reception every week.
Having the country's intellectual leaders in the seats at performances makes a difference, says Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter: "Justice Ginsberg is so generous at giving her time."
At restaurants, patrons aren't shy about tweeting the justice at the next table. Scalia liked Tosca, then Bebo and Cafe Milano, where he once posed for a picture with rapper Ludacris. "He was very proud to be an Italian," says Milano owner Franco Nuschese, who hosted Scalia at dinners with Italian and Vatican officials. Ginsburg celebrated her 82nd birthday at the Capella hotel last year; Sotomayor celebrated her 61st at Mango Tree. And yes, that was a rare sighting of Thomas coming out of the Capital Grille in February.
You may spot Thomas at the occasional conservative dinner, but he's seldom seen at other local events. What he really likes is hitting the road: Every summer, he and his wife climb into their RV and motor cross-country to sporting events and NASCAR races, where he frequently gets into long, chatty conversations with other fans who have no idea whom they're talking to.
"He's very comfortable outside the box that is Washington," explains SCOTUSblog's Goldstein.
Truth is, it's not easy navigating the line between the justices' professional and social lives.
People often ask NPR's Totenberg, who has known many of the justices for decades, for advice. "My experience is that people don't really understand what they can't talk about," she says. "I tell them, 'You can't talk about a case or an issue that might come before the court. You talk about life — kids, music, movies — the things normal people talk about.'"
Before they joined the court, the justices functioned under the radar, not really known by the general public. Then suddenly, they're at the top of Washington's social elite. "The last thing they want is to be the center of attention," says Goldstein. "They got thrust, in a sense, into an isolation chamber."
Goldstein, who has argued 38 cases before the court, has attended plenty of small dinners with one or more of the justices. He makes small talk, but has never invited any of them to parties at his home. It may be an overreaction, he says, but people are very attentive to perception and he doesn't want it to be awkward for them.
But the world of elite Washington judges and lawyers is very small. Everybody knows everybody, and many are longtime friends. So former Solicitor General Ted Olson, one of the most powerful lawyers in the nation, invited Justices O'Connor and Kennedy to his 2006 wedding and is a regular at Ginsburg's New Year's Eve party. And Carter Phillips, who has argued 83 cases in front of the Supremes (won 41, lost 38, two ties, two pending), has known Alito for 36 years and Roberts almost as long.
Phillips first met Alito when they worked together in the solicitor general's office. Now they have dinner three to four times a year with Catholic University President John Garvey and their wives. "I have a pretty good sense of what's proper to talk about and what's not," Phillips says. "Obviously, we don't talk about cases. But we talk about everything else." The current hot topic? Grandchildren.
And they exchange funny birthday cards, but no gifts. "I would love to go to baseball games, but he can't," says Phillips, who has behind-home-plate seats to the Washington Nationals. Ethics rules prevent Alito from accepting an invitation to one of the gazillion-dollar seats without paying for it. "I don't want to put him in that situation," Phillips says.
So if you see a couple of guys in the cheap seats — and one looks a lot like Alito — you'll understand why.
Originally published in The Washington Post and reprinted with permission.