Im­por­tant lessons from Scalia

The Arizona Republic - - Opinions -

I knew the late Jus­tice An­tonin Scalia a lit­tle, and like mil­lions of others, I was an avid fan of his jurispru­dence, the great bulk of which he pro­duced af­ter I was no longer a law stu­dent, so much the worse for me.

What do I have to do with it? Noth­ing, ex­cept that read­ing opin­ions as a law stu­dent was of­ten like try­ing to swal­low great bowls of saw­dust — with­out milk. Very few judges can write well. On the rare oc­ca­sions when I came across a de­ci­sion by Learned Hand, I would prac­ti­cally weep with grat­i­tude for his clear, force­ful prose.

An­tonin Scalia was not just a great stylist for a ju­rist, he was a great writer for a writer. Most of his work though, ob­vi­ously, was in the form of opin­ions and dis­sents, and even the best Supreme Court opin­ions are re­quired to in­clude co­pi­ous ci­ta­tions, which, for the gen­eral reader, can be dis­tract­ing speed bumps. That’s one of the many rea­sons to re­joice at a new col­lec­tion of Scalia’s speeches.

“Scalia Speaks” is a joint ef­fort by Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter Pres­i­dent Ed Whe­lan (a for­mer Scalia law clerk) and Christo­pher Scalia, one of the jus­tice’s nine chil­dren and a for­mer English pro­fes­sor. It of­fers even the non-spe­cial­ist an al­most in­ti­mate pic­ture of one of the giants of our age. Here, in vivid prose, with­out tex­tual clut­ter, is his case for orig­i­nal­ism, against the “liv­ing Con­sti­tu­tion” and for ju­di­cial mod­esty.

Just as com­pelling are the other di­men­sions of Scalia’s life and per­son­al­ity that shine through. In 1997, the Univer­sity Club of Wash­ing­ton gave the jus­tice a sports award. He be­gan with char­ac­ter­is­tic drollery: “I have been asked many, many times to what do I at­tribute my well-known ath­letic prow­ess.” He then re­lated the games and sports he had played as a kid in Queens, New York. The speech is a ver­i­ta­ble time cap­sule, con­vey­ing an al­most un­rec­og­niz­able era in which un­su­per­vised kids de­vised their own games us­ing lit­tle more a Spaldeen ball and a broom­stick. “There were no soc­cer moms be­cause there was no soc­cer. Amer­i­cans over­whelm­ingly pre­ferred base­ball, a game in which a lot of play­ers stand around while not much hap­pens, to soc­cer, a game in which peo­ple run back and forth fu­ri­ously while not much hap­pens.” The man who would fa­mously re­fer in one Supreme Court opin­ion to “ar­gle-bar­gle” re­called fondly that one of his child­hood games was called “mum­blety-peg” and con­sisted of throw­ing a penknife into a square marked off in the dirt. “In those days no­body wor­ried about kids car­ry­ing knives.”

Scalia’s mind sparkled like a gem, but per­haps, in our tur­bu­lent time, the most im­por­tant take­away from this col­lec­tion is a les­son about ci­vil­ity.

The na­tional mood has changed even just since Scalia’s death. So many of us to­day are mar­i­nat­ing in the plea­sures of ha­tred. Scalia was one of the most skilled polemi­cists of our time, but he was the op­po­site of a hater. He had an open, gen­er­ous na­ture. Some of the eu­lo­gies he of­fered for friends are in­cluded in “Scalia Speaks,” and they con­vey just how per­cep­tive and ap­pre­cia­tive he was. The most im­por­tant things in life — work, fam­ily, at­ti­tude, piety — are the things he trea­sured in others. And though nei­ther MSNBC nor Fox News would choose to fo­cus on this, he didn’t al­low po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences to poi­son per­sonal re­la­tion­ships. Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg was among his clos­est friends.

Jus­tice Gins­burg pro­vided a warm in­tro­duc­tion, in which she re­vealed that she and Scalia used to trade drafts, the bet­ter to hone their ar­gu­ments. “If our friend­ship en­cour­ages others to ap­pre­ci­ate that some very good peo­ple have ideas with which we dis­agree, and that, de­spite dif­fer­ences, peo­ple of good­will can pull to­gether for the well­be­ing of the in­sti­tu­tions we serve and our coun­try, I will be overjoyed, as I am con­fi­dent Jus­tice Scalia would be.”

Mona Charen is a se­nior fel­low at the Ethics and Pub­lic Pol­icy Cen­ter.

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