Scalia: The Justice Who Brought His “A” Game

This week’s Courier Herald column:

Justice Antonin Scalia died Saturday. The immediate political reaction was as expected as it was unseemly. Expected because one of the courts most conservative members has left a vacancy during a heated election to replace our country’s most progressive President. Expected because the candidacies of Donald Trump and Bernie sanders show that our country is not only as divided as ever among ideological lines, but also among those from both parties currently governing against those being governed.

Upon the news of his death much social media immediately filled with partisan punches and counter punches. There was no shortage of those who chose to judge Scalia the man based solely on his judicial opinions as compared to their own world view.

Scalia the man was much more than that. He was a husband, father of nine, and grandfather of three-dozen. Perhaps the way Scalia the man – and the judge/political figure – should be judged is by his friends. He had many, and for someone often viewed as a right wing ideologue his choices of friends would likely surprise many.

Fellow Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t share many of Justice Scalia’s opinions on the court. Professionally the two could be considered adversaries. Yet personally, the two were very close friends. Her statement upon his death revealed both personal closeness and professional respect:

“Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: “We are different, we are one,” different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots-the “applesauce” and “argle bargle”-and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his “energetic fervor,” “astringent intellect,” “peppery prose,” “acumen,” and “affability,” all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp.

“Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.”

What strikes me in her statement isn’t the note of friendship, but the direct admission that Scalia made her work harder and her opinions better. Strength demands strength. Opposite forces can make each other stronger – and in the process, the process and outcome become stronger.

Scalia held strong opinions. He also believed that the country was best served when the opposition not only held equally rigorous opinions, but also brought an equally strong rigor of intellect to the debate. The Supreme Court is our republic’s highest platform for a battle of ideas. He wanted to ensure that the best ideas were presented from each side, from the best.

How so? President Obama’s Advisor David Axelrod wrote for CNN over the weekend that Scalia asked him directly during a White House Correspondents’ dinner for President Obama to appoint his friend Elana Kagan to the highest court.

Why would one of the courts most conservative members plug a progressive? According to Axelrod, “if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good, honest fight.”

There’s a lesson here for modern day politics. Too many run from actual political battles and from fighting the good, honest fight. We instead choose to paint our ideological adversaries as enemies. We anoint ourselves with moral superiority and thus justify any means necessary to win against our enemies. And our enemies become anyone who has the temerity to disagree with us.

Champions know that in order to be the best they have to beat the best. Scalia brought the best with him.

While there will be another Justice Scalia the court needs more men and women like him. Perhaps more importantly, American politics needs more who share his self-confidence in his opinions that they will openly accept those that differ.

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Dave BearseScottNAtlantaSaltycrackerWill KremerCalypso Recent comment authors
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gcp
gcp

Scalia was the most gregarious member of the court which is quite fitting for a man who loved opera and Italian food. While most referred to him as conservative, he would be better described as one who felt the constitution gave the federal government limited power and that most issues should be handled by states. No matter how you felt about his opinions, most would agree he was an intellectual powerhouse.

John Konop
John Konop

Very well said! Many do not know but he was champion of overreach of government no matter the politics.

Bart
Bart

Just when you think politicians can’t get any lower on the scale of humanity, along comes Mitch McConnell. The unfortunate news of Scalia’s passing had barely hit the street before Sen McConnell released a statement warning the president not to submit a nominee to replace Scalia. #1 Every president is obligated by the Constitution to fill an open judiciary seat, period. #2 Let the family grieve. Not to be outdone, Cruz and Rubio followed shortly thereafter with their own warnings to the president. I guess some folks respond to such partisan crap, but those of us with a clue/heart find… Read more »

Calypso
Calypso

I don’t doubt for one second that if the labels of all involved were reversed then the exact same thing would be occurring.

Also, given I have little use for President Obama, I do find it ludicrous that there are many calling for him to not nominate a justice to replace Scalia. It’s his prerogative, even his duty, to do so. Even if it were January 2017.

What the Senate chooses to do with said nomination is an entirely different story.

Will Kremer
Will Kremer

Great column, Charlie. Many politicos and politicos-to-be could learn much from Justice Scalia’s approach. He understood what many fail to even strive to understand: ideological differences do not make-or-break relationships. It’s comfortable to exist within an echo chamber of ideologues who share your sentiments, but choosing to welcome people of opposing ideology introduces new views and strengthens one’s perspective. Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia challenged each other professionally and strengthened each other personally.

What a loss.

Saltycracker
Saltycracker

Nicely said. IMO the GOP is making a big mistake fluffing their feathers over the timing of a proposed relacement. We know what Obama is going to do. Making noise now takes away a good percentage of power in a rebuttal swing if he nominates someone like AG Lynch.

So we should shut up until he presents a candidate or risk looking like crybabies, which will be the BS left position every time the GOP speaks.

ScottNAtlanta
ScottNAtlanta

This idea that it would be the same if the shoe was on the other foot is just plain false. GW got all his people through, although some didnt like them (and in the case of Meyers that included republicans), they always got a vote up or down. What Mitch McConnell is doing is refusing to even bring it up? Not withstanding the man hasnt even been buried yet, its also not very smart. Republicans have leverage to get a moderate (which is the best they’ll get with a D in the WH), and risk this stupid strategy blowing up… Read more »

Dave Bearse
Dave Bearse

I think Obama will nominate someone quickly. The Senate GOP’s political capital may well give out before the 2016 election. Indeed it’s possible that the Senate Republicans are currently dealing from their position of greatest strength, and that their advantage will erode the longer the vacancy is stonewalled. Pundits have dwelled on the fact that that Supreme Court appointments in the last year of a second Presidential term are few and far between, but there hasn’t been an 11+ months Supreme Court vacancy since the Civil War. The GOP idea that waiting improves the GOP position is based on the… Read more »