Justice Antonin Scalia was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986 and served the Supreme Court for nearly thirty years before his death on Saturday, February 13, 2016. The most important legacy that Scalia leaves behind is his theory that the Supreme Court should interpret the Constitution according to how the American people understand the Constitution and its amendments. In other words, he stood firmly against the idea of an evolving interpretation of the Constitution as he said that it’s an unprecedented burden to put on nine lawyers. Because of the burden of analyzing how the Constitution is growing and deciding what new rights it offers, he believed that the responsibility of a democracy must be placed on the voters, and thus only the voters should be allowed to change the Constitution by the amendment process. Using those principles, Justice Scalia ruled that burning the American flag can be protected by free speech granted by the First Amendment. There’s no doubt he was a fierce patriot and had no sympathy of radicals who would burn the American flag, but he believed in the Constitution’s text more than anything else.
Nonetheless, his choice of words and comments will dominate the general public’s perception of Scalia. In the same-sex marriage case, his dissent deemed Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion “pretentious.” He also caused a stir when he said that he would rather hide his head in a bag than sign on to Justice Kennedy’s version of legal reason. Not to forget, his dissent also included words like “pure applesauce” and “jiggery-pokery” showing both his uncompromising conservatism and his melodramatic flair. In his dissent to affirmative action, Scalia remarked that black students might be happier and better suited in less selective schools with a slower track. He also spearheaded the majority opinion ruling against the state of California’s attempt to criminalize the sale of violent video games to minors. The American public clearly reacted differently to these two decisions.
Robert George, a professor at Princeton University and a dear friend of Scalia, clarified that despite Scalia’s rough-and-tumble play with his fellow justices, Scalia was able to maintain very good friendships. For example, his best friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg was his ideological opposite. They were old and dear friends from the time they served together on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit and they admired each other greatly. They were known to frequently spent New Year’s Eve together.
Whether you liked Scalia or not, for a man who contributed so much to the United States, one would assume the bi-partisan politics would halt to pay their respects. HA! What nonsense! Hardly five seconds lulled before Mitch McConnell, senate majority leader, promised to block any nominee sent by Barack Obama on the grounds that with eleven months left in office he should leave the choice to the winner of the November general elections. Echoing some of the statements made by McConnell, Loomis Chaffee student Alex Rosenthal ’17 noted, “The next president will reflect the viewpoint of the majority of Americans and that president should do the nomination and not a lame duck president.” Regardless of the Republican sentiments in this quotation, both parties have had the same general ideal. Senator Joe Biden argued against the Supreme Court nomination in 1992 and claimed that President Bush should follow the practice of his predecessors and not appoint a nominee until after the November elections. Even President Obama favored the filibuster in 2005 against George W. Bush’s nominees. The Constitution is very clear on the issue that the president “shall” appoint a nominee and the senate must vote on that nominee. There is no ambiguity there; it doesn’t mention “should,” “could,” or “not in the last year of the term.” Lame-duck arguments are also irrelevant. Interestingly enough, Scalia was appointed 98-0 in the senate. This was so, not because they all agreed on his views, but because they agreed that he was a very qualified lawyer to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court – a perfect example of the senate abiding by the Constitution.
The delay in appointing a new justice leaves many Supreme Court cases that are pending in risk of a 4-4 tie between the liberal and conservative judges. These cases range from abortion to immigration to affirmative action.
Whatever happens now, the death of Judge Antonin Scalia marks an end of an era. If Obama’s nominee does get accepted, the nomination would establish the most liberal Supreme Court seen in decades.