What’s up with the Supreme Court and finding a successor to Justice Scalia? What impact does this have on the Court and it’s ability to decide cases? Find out as David rides through downtown Tallahassee on his way to the FSU Alumni center and a meeting of the Tallahassee Rotary Club.
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.
In this final installment of my examination of the U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding same sex marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges I examine the dissents of Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia.
Justice Scalia concurs with the dissent of Justice Roberts, but felt that it was necessary for him to write separately “to call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy.”
Justice Scalia is quite famous for his scorching and snarky dissents in which he often resorts to ridicule of the other justices and their reasoning. In this dissent he doesn’t disappoint us in the least. His opening is similar to Justice Roberts’ dissent in that he tries to create distance between his “personal feelings” regarding same-sex marriage and his opposition to finding a right to marriage for same sex couples. Justice Scalia writes:
“The substance of today’s decree is not of immense personal importance to me. The law can recognize as marriage whatever sexual attachments and living arrangements it wishes…it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage.”
In other words, like Justice Roberts, he’s trying to insulate himself from being judged homophobic by history. Having assured everyone that he doesn’t hate gay people, Justice Scalia then becomes quite melodramatic in his dissent. He basically accuses his fellow justices of destroying American democracy and taking over the other branches of government.
“Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court.”
In classic Scalia fashion he accuses his fellow justices of “robbing the people of the freedom to govern themselves”. His argument throughout his dissent is really two-fold: 1.) This is a political question with no civil right involved. 2.) Marriage is a matter for the States and does not involve a constitutionally protected liberty interest.
It is interesting to note that although Justice Scalia criticizes the majority for failing to present a more developed legal argument, his dissent contains only the most minimal citation to judicial precedent. He repeatedly returns to the fact that only nine Supreme Court justices get to decide the case. However, he doesn’t acknowledge the dozens of District Court and Appellate Judges who, during the decisions giving rise to the present case, repeatedly reached the same outcome as the majority in this case. Indeed, only a small number of Judges have found that same sex marriage is not a Constitutionally protected right.
One very interesting portion of his argument arises during his criticism of his colleagues and the institution in which they serve. Justice Scalia brings up an interesting, and I think important, observation regarding the lack of diversity in today’s Supreme Court. “The Court,” he writes:
“consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School. Four of the nine are natives of New York City. Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States. Only one hails from the vast expanse in-between. Not a single South-westerner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination.”
Actually, Justice Scalia is somewhat misleading in this statement. His colleague and friend, Justice Ginsberg is a graduate of Columbia Law School, although she did study at Harvard before transferring to Columbia. In many ways, this is a somewhat odd attack on what many feel is the most diverse Court in our history. Consider that 3 out of the 4 women who have ever served on the Court are currently serving. There is a Black male justice, of which there has only been one other. As far as we know, there are no homosexual Justices (Although it does appear that the only person nominated from my hometown of Tallahassee, George Harold Carswell, may be the only non-heterosexual ever nominated). We have the first and only Hispanic Justice. He is correct that the Court lacks religious diversity. All current justices are either Catholic or Jewish, although historically 91 of the 112 Justices who have served on the Court come from a Protestant background. The average age of our current justices is approximately 70 years old. The lack of diversity in legal education is also concerning.
This commentary on diversity becomes more intriguing because later in the dissent Justice Scalia cites to the wisdom of a group of historic Judges who are hardly a diverse group at all:
“Thomas Cooley, John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Learned Hand, Louis Brandeis, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Cardozo, Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, Robert Jackson, and Henry Friendly”
|John Marshall Harlan||White||Protestant|
|Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.||White||Unitarian|
|Learned Hand||White||Protestant turned agnostic|
|William Howard Taft||White||Unitarian|
In many ways that’s the irony of Justice Scalia’s dissent. He utilizes diversity as a weapon to criticize, but he’s not at all bothered by the lack of historic diversity in our legal system to whose precedents he believes we should rigidly adhere. He doesn’t seem to see diversity as something that is protected by the Constitution. Yet there is an uncomfortable truth to Justice Scalia’s argument that the Constitution doesn’t create rights to promote fairness and justice for a diverse society. Our founding fathers and ancestors did not see justice and fairness in ways that we do in modern times. Consider for instance that State laws prohibiting contraception for married couples were lawful until 1965. It wasn’t until 1981 that we got a woman on the US Supreme Court. Our nation didn’t even prohibit segregated schools until 1954. As recently as 1986 the Supreme Court upheld laws criminalizing gay sex. I can’t help but wonder if Justice Scalia thinks we should be bound to the past until such time as the electoral process provides an opportunity to vote for change?
Justice Scalia’s dissent argues this limitation of Constitutional protection by claiming that the Court should refrain from looking to the spirit, the intent, and the promise of the Constitution. The focus should remain only on the text. Justices should not read into the text any rights that are not explicitly stated. He believes that it is through constitutional amendment and not judicial interpretation based upon experience that change should occur. While I do not think this perspective is without merit, I don’t believe that for many oppressed and minority groups his perspective offers a realistic hope of justice and freedom from oppression by the majority group. Other than women’s suffrage and abolishing slavery, our nation has never once amended the Constitution to create a new right or to offer any group protection from any form of oppression.
Lastly, to conclude this blog post, we turn to the dissent of Justice Thomas who begins his dissent by rejecting the majority’s concept of liberty. He writes:
“The Court’s decision today is at odds not only with the Constitution, but with the principles upon which our Nation was built. Since well before 1787, liberty has been understood as freedom from government action, not entitlement to government benefits.”
Justice Thomas utilizes a definition of liberty that was written in 1769 in an analysis of the laws of England, the very nation we broke away from in pursuit of freedom:
“the power of loco-motion, of changing situation, or removing one’s person to whatsoever place one’s own inclination may direct; without imprisonment or restraint, unless by due course of law.”
He then conducts an analysis of liberty, as it was understood under the British Magna Carta. His reasoning for doing this is his belief that this was the understanding of liberty possessed by the framers of the Constitution. He spends a great deal of time in his exploration of “liberty” and seems willing to expand it to include freedom from government action. However, he claims that even with this expanded definition he still rejects the right of same sex marriage because he sees the right of marriage, along with the governmental benefits, to be about an entitlement to governmental benefits.
Justice Thomas points out that the petitioners are free to have whatever form of religious marriage they wish, but that in his view the case is about their seeking governmental recognition of their marriage and the governmental benefits that flow from that recognition. These may be valid points, but Justice Thomas doesn’t in any way address, other than by virtue of tradition, why the government can restrict its recognition of marriage to only one man and one woman. I’m left wondering, under Justice Thomas’ perspective, when can the government create benefits that are entitled to some people and not others? Could we create a benefit that is arbitrarily for men only, for people of color only, only for Catholics, etc.? If my understanding of Justice Thomas is correct, then he believes such would be allowed.
The final issue that comes up in Justice Thomas’ dissent is without a doubt the most bizarre piece of judicial writing that I have ever read. Honestly, I was shocked when I read it and it still seems like something you’d read in the Onion rather than a US Supreme Court opinion.
Justice Thomas begins discussing “dignity” and states that the US Constitution does not protect it. He claims that because dignity is innate to all human beings it cannot be impacted, positively or negatively by governmental action. He writes:
“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.”
I’m at a complete loss as to what to say about this other than it’s got to be one of the most ridiculous and callous statements ever written by a Supreme Court Justice. In my opinion, the right to vote, due process, freedom of speech, and protection against unlawful searches and seizures are all rooted in a fundamental respect for the dignity of human beings. To view our Constitution as providing nothing more than a framework for the function of government to me is to strip it of articulation of our values. This ultimately denigrates the very nature of the document and the nation that looks to it for direction. I’m simply appalled.
In closing, this decision and the dissents, apart from their important impact upon American life, reflect many of the challenges and conflicting perspectives we face as our nation moves into the 21st century. In some ways, and it’s strange for me to admit this, Justice Scalia may have some valid points when he argues that rather than looking to our Courts to create new rights, we should be amending the Constitution. Consider that ours is the oldest Constitution is use in the world today and we’ve rarely amended it. With the exception of women’s suffrage and the abolishing of slavery, we’ve not amended it to create any new civil rights or end oppression in over 200 years. We are utilizing a document that pre-dates the industrial revolution, any form of electronics, and mechanized transportation to run what is perhaps the most complex civilization in the history of the world. The question that will remain after this case is to what degree do we reinterpret and extrapolate to find meaning and direction, and at what point do we simply say that it’s time to amend or rewrite? My thought is that not do either of these things will allow us turn a blind eye to injustice and inequality as these concepts emerge in the modern world.