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Adorning a wall in my dorm room is a portrait of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with the letters “tRUTH” displayed just beneath the signature lace collar of her judge’s robe. Cleverly, it highlights a virtue so paramount to our judicial process. Her entire life, she fought relentlessly for the truth, and we live in a better world because of the work she did.
RBG served as a Justice of the Supreme Court from 1993 to 2020. Throughout an extraordinary career prior to her appointment, she was a law professor, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, and a preeminent voice of the fight towards gender equality. An icon in the most modest of terms. The book “My Own Words,” offers a collection of selected compositions from her career. I urge you to spend some time with her words.
Antonin Scalia served as a Justice of that same Court from 1986 to 2016. He was an intellectual force behind the principles of originalism, leading the way for a generation of legal thinkers in embracing these ideas and shaping American jurisprudence as we know it. By any account, a foremost jurist in our judicial history. In the book, “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived,” readers can relive some of his most remarkable speeches. I urge you to spend some time with his words as well.
RBG and Scalia shared a beautiful and enduring friendship. In many matters of law they were diametrically opposed. They differed deeply on their interpretations of the Constitution. On the most challenging legal and ideological questions, the very kind the highest court in the land is so often tasked with resolving, the two disagreed often. Yet this friendship, forged years before either of their appointments to the Court, never wavered through the decades they served together, through the tribulations of their profession. In fact, you might be delighted to learn, as I was, that an opera was written about the two of them, spotlighting their contrasting views and their unlikely friendship: “Scalia/Ginsburg,” composed by librettist Derrick Wang, is truly a gem.
Both of them treasured the power of writing well and communicating clearly. RBG said of Vladimir Nabokov, her professor of European Literature as an undergrad at Cornell: “he changed the way I read and the way I write.” From him, she learned that “choosing the right word, and the right word order … could make an enormous difference.” For Scalia, who was a devoted law school teacher for much of his life, good writing emerged at the expense of a great deal of “time and sweat,” as he would tell his students. As Justices, the two of them often exchanged drafts of their opinions for review because, in light of their stark differences, they had the utmost respect for each other’s wisdom and good faith.
Important in anything we may endeavor towards, RBG and Scalia have shown us, time and time again, the immense strength we have in our voice, and through our words. As I write this column, I labor to find the right words, in the right order, because I want to communicate my message as precisely and convincingly as I can, as RBG would have hoped. This always requires a great deal of time and sweat, as Scalia knew. Through this process, perhaps I can, ever so gradually, find my voice — find what words are my own.
I believe an important mission of our college experience is to discover and craft our voice. It’s what we will use to fight for change when change is overdue. It’s what we will use to empower ourselves and empower others. As we eagerly chase after our academic passions, immersing ourselves in the voices of others, we’re constantly discovering our own.
The portrait in my dorm room isn’t the only place I see the word “truth” around me. The word Veritas is in every corner of our campus. Like judges, we are called upon every day to seek truth. Our education embarks us on a journey towards this virtue, and this journey lasts us a lifetime. We may even find, along the way, the Scalia to our Ginsburg, or the Ginsburg to our Scalia.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, in all their differences, shared a respect and appreciation for the institution and the people they so purposefully and dutifully served. They believed, unequivocally, in the power of their ideas, their voice, and their words. In that judgment, I concur without reservation.
William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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