Scalia’s legacy: undying fidelity to the letter of the law

Reprinted from the Press and Journal

Antonin Scalia believed in the Devil.

In a 2013 interview with New York magazine, the Supreme Court justice expressed shock when his interviewer thought it strange to believe in the Prince of Darkness.

“Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?” asked the liberal-minded questioner.

Scalia, in typical fashion, replied: “You’re looking at me as though I’m weird. My God! Are you so out of touch with most of America, most of which believes in the Devil? I mean, Jesus Christ believed in the Devil!”

For that kind of folksy yet intelligent wit, Justice Scalia will be sorely missed.

The long-serving justice and conservative center of our nation’s highest court passed away unexpectedly at a resort in remote west Texas. Without missing a beat, President Obama and congressional Republicans politicized his death, not waiting 24 hours before announcing their plans for moving forward.

Republicans vow to block any Court appointment, while the president insists on nominating a replacement.

However the president and Congress settle the vacancy dispute, one thing is known: Justice Scalia is irreplaceable. He was a man of supreme intellect, of unwavering courage, of religious devotion and incisive prose.

Here are just a few highlights from his illustrious life and career.

Justice Scalia, while a Republican favorite, defied Washington’s partisan categories. He wasn’t a jurist who voted in lockstep with his ideologically-lined colleagues. Rather, he was a deep-thinker who looked past identity politics, fads of the day, and conservative shibboleths to something simple yet profound: objective law.

Scalia’s legacy on the Court will be remembered as one of undying fidelity to the letter of law.

As a devout Catholic, his devotion to legal originalism seemed to run contrary to Thomistic natural law. But Scalia, ever the piercing mind, reconciled his textualist approach with the foundation of a free society such as ours. He believed that when a judge veers outside the strict meaning of law to impose their own moral judgments, they violate the very basis of representative government.

As French writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains, “There are basically two schools of thought here: those who think the job of a judge is to rule according to what she feels is right, and those who think the job of a judge is to rule according to what the law says.”

“Only one of those options is compatible with democracy and with modern civilization,” Gobry writes, “and that is the second one.” The second is “the one Antonin Scalia wrote.”

From upholding Second Amendment rights to protecting civil liberties, Scalia’s hardline approach to judicial interpretation was a great gift to our country. The loss of it does not bode well for our future. This is especially true as we sink further into the nasty pit of cultural embattlement – something Scalia was also well attuned to in his last years.

In the 2003 decision Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which upheld the right to an abortion, Justice Anthony Kennedy famously wrote in the majority opinion: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Scalia, not one to let such solipsism go uncontested, tore into the radically subjective view, calling it the “sweet-mystery-of-life passage.” He noted that “if the passage calls into question the government’s power to regulate actions based on one’s self-defined ‘concept of existence, etc.,’ it is the passage that ate the rule of law.”

Scalia understood that societies maintain the right to govern themselves by sticking to a strict set of rules. If individuals refuse to comply based on personal preference, law and order collapses.

Scalia saw through the ruinous principle and what it would mean for the balance of morals and government authority. Kennedy’s saccharine words eventually served as the basis of last year’s Obergefell decision, which deemed unconstitutional all state-based bans on gay marriage.

Somehow, someway, the High Court uncovered the right to same-sex marriage in the Constitution, overruling state prohibitions affirmed at the ballot box. In his dissent, Scalia pulled no punches, writing, “A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” Going further, he declared the decision violated “a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: no social transformation without representation.”

You can’t get much more cutting than that.

But then Antonin Scalia was a virtuoso when it came to vocabulary and its usage. His opinions were laced with words and phrases you’d be hard-pressed to find in literary fiction, let alone legal briefs. Some of Scalia’s greatest hits include “jiggery-pokery,” “pure applesauce,” calling a family’s first child “the first pancake,” and declaring the Constitution not a “living document” but “dead, dead, dead.”

For logophiles, Justice Scalia was the gift that kept on giving. For the religiously devout, he was an outspoken voice for spiritual freedom. For fans of the Constitution and the rule of law, Scalia was an advocate for nation’s lasting foundation.

I was fortunate enough to pay respect to Justice Scalia as his body lay in repose at the Supreme Court. I waited in a two hour line that spanned the length of four city blocks just to have a minute with his American flag-draped casket. The long wait was a tribute to a man who was an American giant, and an influential figure whom our history books won’t soon forget.

Let’s hope that in the afterlife, Antonin Scalia is busy taunting the Devil from heaven with his one-of-a-kind character and acerbic parlance.

(Image source)

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