Written by: Calla Cameron, CMC ’17
“A Constitution is not meant to facilitate change. It is meant to impede change, to make it difficult to change.”
This quotation by Justice Antonin Scalia encapsulates his self-perceived role on the bench of the US Supreme Court, and his actions as a Justice. President Obama will likely try to fill the vacancy with a more liberal justice in the coming months. Though I disagreed with Scalia’s decisions and much of his language, I have to reflect on Scalia’s constant presence; this article will address Nino Scalia, the man, the myth, the legend.
Antonin Scalia was born to Italian-American parents, and grew up in Queens, New York. He attended Xavier High School, a military and Catholic school, where his conservative and religious beliefs flourished. From Xavier he went on to Georgetown University, where he graduated summa cum laude as the class of 1957 valedictorian with a bachelor’s degree in history. From there, Scalia went on to study law at Harvard. After a few years practicing in Cleveland, Ohio, Scalia returned to academia to teach at the University of Virginia Law School; for all of his flaws, Scalia truly loved to teach. He went on in his academic career to teach at University of Chicago Law School, Stanford Law School, and Georgetown Law school before being asked by President Reagan to serve on the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in 1982. Throughout this career in academia, Scalia promoted, taught, and supported originalism or textualism, which is the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in terms of what it meant to its original authors. At University of Chicago, he was one of the first faculty advisors of the Federalist Society, which promotes a textualist approach to government and Constitutional law.
As a justice on the D.C. Court of Appeals, Scalia’s originalist opinions were usually marked by witty comments and digs at Supreme Court decisions he disagreed with; it was this habit that drew the attention of the Reagan Administration after the retirement of Chief Justice Warren Burger. Reagan liked him so much that he nominated him for the Supreme Court of the United States of America, where he would work tirelessly until his death. Though liberals in both Congress and the public expressed concern over Scalia’s religiosity and conservatism, he was confirmed 98-0 in the Senate in 1986 (Senators Goldwater and Garn did not participate in the vote).
As a justice, Scalia wrote strong opinions, continuing his use of, shall we say, inventive language, like “jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce” to both disagree with and poke fun at those whose arguments he believed did not follow a classical interpretation of the Constitution. Scalia was controversial; twice, he was expected to recuse himself and refused, and he was outspoken in the media outside of the Court. Many believe that Scalia should have recused himself from judgement in Bush v. Gore because two of his sons worked in the law firm representing President Bush. Scalia did not, and the Court affirmed President Bush’s position after the 2000 election scandal.
Another demonstration of Scalia’s controversial actions on the bench is his behavior during the Hamdan v. Rumsfeld case. This case considered whether Guantanamo Bay detainees should be heard in federal court. Between oral arguments and the Court’s decision, Scalia is quoted as saying that allowing detainees to be heard would “cause more Americans to be killed” in the “war with Radical Islam.” After the story broke that Scalia was discussing a case still in the docket, he was asked to recuse himself, but again, refused. Scalia frequently inflamed passions of onlookers with his unapologetically conservative and religious rhetoric.
Scalia was often offensive, but the mark he has made on the American political and legal system is hugely significant. His notable friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called him her “best buddy,” should be an example for America as a whole; the two used their friendship to strengthen one another’s arguments and minds by pointing out flaws in reasoning. Furthermore, they were able to disagree in many aspects of politics and constitutional interpretation and still be best buddies. To me, this demonstrates their ability to put their disagreements aside and value each other for their brilliance. This shows us that we can disagree with our friends’ decisions or opinions, and still value them as friends. Further, we can use disagreement as an opportunity to educate each other, or to share our perspectives. We don’t have to agree with everything our friends say or do, especially politically.
Moreover, Scalia was paramount in raising the level of constitutional discourse within oral arguments. He questioned everyone, thoroughly and antagonistically during oral arguments, pointing out flaws and making obscure originalist arguments, forcing the advocates to think more critically and to understand every case Scalia judged to be at all related to the one in question. His relentless challenges to those he both agreed with and opposed have inarguably influenced the Court, alongside his modern pioneering of originalism. Scalia believed in and enforced the Constitution as an embalmed and unchangeable document. He asserted that the Constitution was not a “tool for change” but existed to make change more difficult. While many disagree with his decisions and many of his statements, myself definitely included, his influence on the Court over the last 30 years cannot be ignored. That influence is sure to last for decades, if not centuries, beyond the Justice’s death.
Antonin Scalia passed away in his sleep on February 13th, 2016. He is survived by his wife, Maureen, his nine children, Eugene, Paul, Ann, Christopher, Margaret, Matthew, Catherine, John, and Mary, as well as by his 28 grandchildren.