This weekend’s controversy about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s remarks on state laws banning gay marriage got me thinking about a question I posed to the then most junior member of the Supreme Court, Justice William Rehnquist.
A quick summary about this weekend’s news story about Justice Ginsburg might be helpful. During an informal question and answer session, she was asked about cases, currently before the Sixth District Court of Appeals, regarding state laws that ban gay marriages. She answered that if the District Court allowed the state laws to stand that the Supreme Court would need to quickly review the cases. But, if the Sixth District ruled that the state laws are illegal the Supreme Court could, according to Justice Ginsburg, take their time.
And, she has officiated at gay marriage ceremonies.
The question is: Should she recuse herself from likely deliberations of the Supreme Court on the matter of state laws banning gay marriages? Can she be fair in considering all sides of the issue?
In 1977, I was just one semester shy from college graduation when I got an opportunity to hear Justice Rehnquist speak. A question and answer session followed his remarks and I was surprised to be called. I approached the microphone and asked him: “Is federal legislation required to ensure the all Americans are treated equally?”
My question made a great deal of sense in 1977 for in 1971 a proposed change to the U.S. Constitution (termed the “Equal Rights Amendment”) was passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Nixon. To become law, thirty-eight states had to ratify the amendment before March 22, 1979. Through 1977, 35 states had approved ratification but then 5 states changed their mind and rescinded their endorsement of the amendment, reducing the number of ratifications to 30.
From 1972 to 1977, the entire country discussed the amendment. And, there was little doubt that if the 38 state requirement was met that the law would be challenged in the courts with a final ruling coming from the Supreme Court.
So I, an almost-college-graduate with my history degree, asked a question about the law to a Supreme Court Justice. And, he rose to the challenge — He did not give me an answer.
Instead, Justice Rehnquist spoke about what it means to be in a position of authority, making decisions about important and controversial topics. He reminded us that he was aware fully of the topic, but that he disciplined himself to not study, to not discuss, to not consider matters that might be brought before him for a decision. He believed that to do his job with integrity he had to consider every case on its own merits, without bias. In fact, he did not discuss most political issues, even with his own family.
It was an important lesson for me.
As leaders, we need to discipline our conversations about issues. How many times have we spoken up when we would have been so much better off by remaining quiet? What damage have we done by talking unnecessarily?
The scripture gives us important advice: “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.” (Proverbs 21:23) and “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” (Proverbs 17:28)
Leaders have unique challenges. For today, the question is: Have we learned to control our conversations?