A Great Loss to Court, the Nation
This column by ACRU Policy Board member Hans von Spakovsky was published February 14, 2016 by Philly.com.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Gregory Scalia possessed one of the greatest legal minds of our generation. His unexpected death on Saturday was a tremendous loss for the nation that he loved, for the rule of law that he championed, and for the Constitution he strove to restore throughout his 30 years on the court.
Winston Churchill once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles with it.” Many Americans, including our best lawyers and judges, have been lighting their candles for more than three decades from the knowledge that Scalia spread through his decisions, his writings and his speeches on how to properly interpret and apply the Constitution.
Our nation has had many Supreme Court justices, but few have changed the course of the law. Scalia was one of those few. His profound legal analyses will continue to influence the court for a long time to come. And because the courts today have so much power over our everyday lives, his work will also profoundly influence the nation as a whole.
Activist judges seek to “interpret” —- that is, “change” the law —- to implement their particular views on social issues and government policy. Justice Scalia taught that judges must apply the law as it is written, regardless of their personal views.
His view of the Constitution was that its text must be applied as the men who drafted those words understood and intended those words to work. He rejected the view of those who want a “Living Constitution” —- one that allows judges to legislate from the bench simply by decreeing that those words and text mean whatever they want it to mean. As Scalia wrote in his 2012 book, Reading Law —- The Interpretation of Legal Texts:
“While it once pretended to reflect at least the current society’s revised beliefs (always as perceived by judges, to be sure), in recent years that pretense has been abandoned, and it has been explicitly acknowledged that the Living Constitution means what reform-minded judges think it should mean.”
The result, he noted, is that many issues that should be decided by the people have now been declared by judges to be “off-limits to the democratic process.”
It is clear from his many brilliantly written decisions that Justice Scalia believed in our democratic system, in our Republic. He trusted the American people to make decisions on crucial, controversial issues that judges have no authority —- and no business —- deciding.
Scalia understood how dedication to the rule of law has made America quite different from many other nations. His book urged judges to follow his “proper methods of textual interpretation” of the Constitution and the law, staying out of politics and social ideology. If judges will do that, he argued, “the law will be more certain, and the rule of law will be more secure.”
Antonin Scalia was, beyond doubt, one of the best justices to ever serve on the Supreme Court. But no summary of his career would do justice to the man if it did not also mention his wonderful sense of humor. His speeches were always highly entertaining. And, when hearing oral arguments, his eruptions of sarcastic and often acerbic wit raised many a laugh in the courtroom.
His written opinions, particularly his sharp dissents, not only explained the law but also pointed out —- often in a humorous way —- the mistakes made by his liberal colleagues on the court. It is a mark of the man that those colleagues were also great personal friends of Scalia. They, too, will miss his presence in the courtroom at the Supreme Court.
As we ponder the loss of Scalia, another Churchill quote comes to mind. “I am ready to meet my maker,” he said, “but whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
I have no doubt that the Great Maker is already enjoying a spirited and wonderful debate with a man whose intellect, humor, wit, humility and faith made him a leading light in his church, his community, the law, and the highest court in the land. We will miss him greatly, but history will remember how lucky we were for his presence.