- - Monday, September 16, 2013

Supreme CourtJustice Antonin Scalia offered a ringing defense of the durability of the U.S. Constitution and told a packed audience at George Washington University on Monday that the Supreme Court was less important to their day-to-day lives than their state supreme courts.

“Don’t go around praising the Constitution as an empty bottle,” the conservative justice, who has been on the high court since 1986, told the GW audience. “Don’t go around saying there is no fixed content or saying it means whatever it is supposed to say. It established a rock, some fixed principles, to which society is affixed to.”

Justice Scalia has been a featured speaker at GW since joining the high court. In the past, he has judged the law school's moot court, served as a keynote speaker and, most recently, spoke about his service on the Supreme Court in February.

Monday’s event was co-sponsored by the university’s law school and the Constitutional Sources Project, which is commemorating the 226th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

Despite the Supreme Court’s status as the “court of last resort,” Justice Scalia took a far less exalted view of his role and the work of the high court.

“I’m a lawyer, not a philosopher-king” he said. “But the fact is, if you ask which court is of the greatest importance to an American citizen, it isn’t my court. It is that citizen’s state court.”

Most notorious cases are handled at the state level, and state courts oversee such issues as contracts, family law and criminal law, he said.

“What is the source of American freedom?” Justice Scalia asked. “If you ask your average American citizen, law professor, or even law student, our Bill of Rights ensures freedom of speech, freedom of press, the prohibition on quartering of troops or search and seizure.”

But, he noted, “when you look back at history, many dictators — upon seizing power — first drew up a bill of rights.”

The justice highlighted what legal scholars refer to as the “parchment guarantee” — having a Bill of Rights without the legal foundation or framework for guaranteeing constitutional rights.

“Structure is destiny,” he added, recalling the numerous hours that the Founding Fathers spent debating how to ensure that the legal foundation of the U.S. was not based on just words alone.

The justice identified America’s bicameral legislature as one of the hallmarks that allowed the Constitution to take shape. “In a democracy [like the U.S.], you worry about the legislature. This is why it is split into the House and Senate.”

“Getting the same language on laws passed by both parts of Congress is impressive,” he added.

Speaking about the upcoming Supreme Court term, Justice Scalia briefly alluded to rising concerns about privacy and government surveillance among the American public.

“What privacy requests ought to exist for the people?” he asked his audience. The Supreme Court justices “know the least about the threat, conduct or operations, yet we will have the last word.”

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