The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is an unexpected and massive change in the American legal and political landscape. Consider for a moment the length of Justice Scalia’s tenure on the Court. He was appointed in 1986 by President Regan and served for nearly 30 years. His time on the bench spanned 5 Presidents. He joined the Court while Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice, was still a member and the first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, had only joined the Court a few years earlier.
It is ironic that Justice Scalia, who joined the Court during a time of modernization and diversification, has become iconic to many for being antiquated in his thinking and unreasonably rooted in the past. For Justice Scalia, the answer always seemed to begin with the question, “What did the framers intend?” It always seems to me that Justice Scalia rejected the idea that one generation should interpret the constitution any differently than the generations that came before it. In legal circles he is what we call a “textualist”, that is, he looked, almost exclusively, to the text of the Constitution. Emerging understandings of justice and human rights had no place in his analysis. When interpreting the Constitution, his approach was to always seek to understand the issue from the perspective of the framers and view the issue from the perspective of the 18th century. His answer to injustice, as viewed from the modern world, contained within the Constitutional text, wasn’t reinterpretation based upon new understanding, but amendment. I think it is fair to say that he did not see the Constitution as a living document, but as a static piece of writing.
I believe that the accurate perspective of Justice Scalia is to view him as a fundamentalist. He did not seek out deeper meaning in the text, but simply viewed it at its most fundamental level, looking at little more than the simplest meaning of the text. He was not one to look at the spirit of the language or the document. In his opinions, especially his dissents, he writes as if problems of unjust outcomes are beyond his and the Court’s concern. One can’t help but read is writings and wonder if he lacked compassion, or if empathy was lost at the expense of his adherence to dogma.
This is not to say that Justice Scalia never raised thought-provoking questions or persuasive arguments. Many times I’ve read his writings in which he argued positions with which I disagree, but I came away thinking that he raised interesting arguments. Sadly, I often can’t help but wonder if his arguments would have been more compelling absent his often denigrating statements about those justices and people who disagreed with him.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about Justice Scalia is his close friendship with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a justice with whom he rarely agreed. This is really the quality that I most admire about Justice Scalia. Regardless of his almost unwavering loyalty to his fundamentalist legal dogma, he was able to find connection with a person who completely disagreed with the reasoning that he used to define himself. In many ways, Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg were a model for the civility that should exist between lawyers. Indeed, it should exist at some level between all people. Yes, we may disagree, we may see the world from very different perspectives, but we have to look beyond that and see the commonality and the beauty that exists in our fellow human beings.