My oldest son will be going to law school next year, and I’m thrilled. It has been a dream of his since the 8th grade when his civics class performed a mock trial. For Chris, there was nothing “mock” about it. For that assignment, he actually did his homework, studied the trial scenario from all aspects and prepared. Chris saw the flaw in the opposing argument and went for the jugular. He won, he loved it, and a career goal was born. He spent several years at college volunteering as a student advocate for his classmates, and that experience served to reinforce and focus his career goals even more.
I don’t know anything about being a lawyer, but that probably won’t stop me from giving him advice – I’m still his mom. My first bit of advice he already knows. It is to learn from the Supreme Court Justices how to conduct yourself not just in a courtroom, but in life.
Our family first became enamored with the Supreme Court a few summers ago, when we came across the America and The Courts series on C-Span. Our favorite program was a behind-the-scenes look at the Supreme Court that included interviews with the justices. It was completely engrossing and we learned a lot. For one, we learned that despite the intense controversies that surround some of their opinions, the Supreme Court is not a hotbed of rancor and animosity but actually a place of civility, respect, and friendship.
We learned a lot about how to get along in a group of diverse people – which in a family of six can come in handy. In fact, we’ve identified at least five lessons that the Supreme Court can teach us all about life.
One of the things that quickly became apparent to us was that all nine justices respected the traditions of the Court. They also grasped the importance of their roles while understanding that ultimately, their job isn’t really about them – it’s about our nation. In the video, they spoke reverentially about the building, the chambers, their robes, and the process. They referred to the justices who came before them and recognized their responsibility to the justices who will come after them. They appreciated they are caretakers of the Supreme Court as an institution and of the Constitution as our nation’s guiding document.
Similarly, traditions keep us grounded, too. Traditions are something we can hold onto as our family grows and changes. We have the big traditions of course, but there are the smaller ones too. Things like always having pimento cheese sandwiches and Arnie Palmies when we watch the final round of the Masters golf tournament in April. I hope that whenever our kids eat pimento cheese or drink an Arnie Palmie they will remember they are part of a family and that they belong to something bigger than themselves.
Welcome the New Person
C-SPAN asked the newer justices what it was like when they first arrived to work at the Supreme Court, and they each commented on how open, kind, and welcoming the other justices were. They all agreed that while a new justice upsets the established equilibrium of the group, all the parties approach the change with respect and kindness. Each justice makes a point of speaking personally with the newest member, offering words of help, encouragement, and welcome.
In the next few years, our family will be upsetting our established equilibrium as our children start to bring home boyfriends and girlfriends, and, ultimately, new spouses. We can learn from the Supreme Court by valuing the person who is joining our family. We can remember that a welcoming hand and a kind word will be gratefully remembered forever.
Friendship Over Politics
The program discussed the close friendship between Justices Scalia and Ginsberg. Even though they were on the opposite sides of some of the more politically charged cases before the Supreme Court, they were still the best of friends. They looked past politics and saw the person, and they and the Court benefitted.
Our family loves a vigorous debate, but at the end of the day we love each other more than we love proving a point. I can’t think of any opinions that are worth alienating family over.
Eat a Meal Together
Sandra Day O’Connor began a tradition of the justices eating a meal alone together in their private dining room between oral arguments and deliberations. Because the justices feel the burden of their decisions, they all seem to appreciate the breather and the bond of sharing a private meal together when they can relax and remember they aren’t alone with this burden.
We all need this sometimes. One night during a busy time when we sat down to dinner, our son said, “I’m so glad it’s just us tonight.” We all knew how he felt. Sometimes when the world is crazy and the pressure is mounting we need to shut the door, sit around the table, and remember we aren’t alone with our burdens.
Never Let Others Define Who You Are
As much as we as a country try to pigeonhole the nine justices, they don’t always play to type. They can sometimes vote in a way that was not predicted by the “experts”, or they can reveal beliefs that don’t match what we’d normally expect from someone with their background or demographics. Despite what their political opponents would have us believe, all nine justices are intelligent, educated, and thoughtful. As much as pundits may pronounce certain decisions as preordained, the justices’ opinions come after much research, discussion, and thinking. And they made it clear during the interviews we watched that they strive to never feel constrained by outsiders’ expectations of how they should vote.
This may be the most important Supreme Court lesson we can instill in our children. Think for yourself. Be your own person. Never let anyone else define you. Never let your mind be held captive by the expectations of others.