Yesterday, America lost a brilliant scholar and legal giant. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a linchpin of conservatism and originalism, passed away at a ranch in West Texas at the age of 79.
For all of the left’s ignorant celebrations of his death, Justice Scalia was truly a representative of the “old school” vision of American politics – the kind of philosophy that saw human interaction as more than the sum of ideologies and self-referential identity. Not only was he a close friend and confidant of Justice Ginsburg (making for a true odd couple phenomenon), but as we’ve learned over the past day, Scalia actually pushed for Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Court. He thought correct jurisprudence to be a higher pursuit than simply winning battles, going so far as to let other Justices read his dissents in advance so his supposed adversaries could strengthen their majority opinions.
Such magnanimity isn’t just evident in third-party anecdotes. All sitting Justices, along with two retirees, have issued statements praising Scalia’s unparalleled commitment to the Constitution and a system of ethics that has made an indelible mark on our nation’s legal process.
It is the last aspect of Scalia’s worldview – his moral and ethical impulses applied to the law – that has drawn the most admiration and the most criticism. His concept of “originalism,” broadly defined as thinking in the way the Founders would have thought when they first drafted the Constitution, anchored the Supreme Court’s right-leaning decisions for much of the post-Reagan era. Later terming his philosophy textualism, Scalia acknowledged critics who were suspicious of using a contemporary ideal of historical beliefs to decide important social cases. Like a scientist who works by hypotheses rather than gut feelings, he claimed that originalism “wasn’t perfect” but that no better alternative had yet emerged to disprove his theory. This observation went so far as the relationship between Scalia’s decisions and his personal convictions: in the 2002 flag-burning case Texas v. Johnson, he wrote that “if it were up to me, I would put in jail every sandal-wearing, scruffy-bearded weirdo who burns the American flag. But I am not king.” Originalism dictated that he put aside his own proclivites in favor of the Founders’ aspirations.
Other beliefs, such as Scalia’s opinion that affirmative action is harmful to students who may not meet regular admission standards for a particular university, earned him enmity among non-conservatives. For a certain segment of the liberal intelligentsia, he was a “racist” and “sexist” who pushed Catholicism on the rest of American society. His stance that portions of the Voting Rights Act constituted 21st century “racial entitlements” placed him right in the midst of identity politics, while his assertion that moral issues such as gay marriage have no “scientifically demonstrable right answer” embittered gay rights activists and their allies. An outsize personality with a reputation for polemical performances, Scalia was often a boogeyman for media outlets such as Slate and The New York Times.
Yet, as the saying goes, those who can’t recognize a great man will never be great themselves. The reality is that Scalia transformed American law not just through technically superior arguments, but via his emphasis on principled adherence to views exceeding his own. Despite his eminently quotable bombast and his dominant presence relative to his fellow Justices, Scalia possessed a certain humility that placed his decisions in the service of American history in order to impact the future of a rapidly changing nation. This three-dimensional vision, a rarity among all branches of our current federal government, remains the true essence of conservatism and constitutes the most accurate representation of the American experiment in modern times.