Antonin Scalia is a Supreme Court justice for grown-ups. This irritates the child-like who think the law and the courts are places to take their wish lists, dreams of a summer night and cherished fantasies. Justice Scalia is their Scrooge for all seasons.
Alas, there’s a declining market for grown-ups in modern America, where nearly everyone wants to ride a hobby horse to Mommy, but Mr. Scalia is a bright light on the landscape. Like most of his colleagues he travels frequently to make speeches, often to law schools where auditoriums are always packed, but often to lesser venues. He’s witty, entertaining and blunt in an era when public men retreat to euphemism and hide in flabby language.
He says what he thinks on the high court, too, asking more questions and making more remarks than any of the other eight justices. He provokes more laughter than the other justices, too, all to get to a telling point and to make it memorable. This naturally stokes the ire of the politically correct grunions in places high, low and in-between, but it delights even his critics.
Justice Scalia “doesn’t come in to oral arguments all secretive and Sphinx-like,” writes Dahlia Lithwick of Slate magazine, “feigning indecision on the nuances of the case before him. He comes in like a medieval knight, girded for battle. He knows what the law is. He knows what the opinion should say. And he uses the hour allotted for argument to bludgeon his brethren into agreement.”
He stirred up the mob outside the other day when, listening to oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas, which will determine whether race-based admissions are upheld at the flagship state university. Citing the point raised in a brief, he asked a lawyer whether ill-prepared black students benefit from admission to top-ranked schools like Texas and Harvard, where “they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a lower-track school, where they do well.” And where they might not be tempted to drop out, as many do from the elite schools, when the going gets particularly tough. Some ill-prepared white students do, too, but not nearly as many.
There’s nothing wrong with “lower-track colleges.” Most Americans with college degrees got them at a lower-track college, but the justice had stepped on one of the many third rails that crisscross the land, and the hounds were let loose. The hunt was on.
The black television actress Rashida Jones denounced the justice as a racist and demanded that he be impeached. (Harvard will here be spared the humiliation of a footnote that Mzz Jones received at Harvard her understanding of how things work.) Sen. Harry Reid, the deposed Senate majority leader, agreed that the justice is, indeed, a racist, but Harry, still smarting from a licking, regards “racist” as a synonym for “Republican.”
Justice Scalia stirred another mob when he told students at a high school in suburban New Orleans that there’s “no place” in the Constitution for the idea — the gospel of atheists — that the state must be neutral in considering conflicts between faith and unbelief.
“To tell you the truth,” he told them, “there is no place for that in our constitutional tradition. Where did that come from? To be sure, you can’t favor one denomination over another.” Not only that, but there’s nothing wrong with presidents and others invoking God in their speeches, because God continues to smile on an America protected by a divine hand.
“God has been very good to us,” he said. “That we won the Revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway [the turning point in the Pacific in World War II] was extraordinary. I think one reason God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke His name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that, and do not let anybody tell you there is anything wrong with that.” No doubt many will try.
Only a foolish man would get into a war of words with a fearless man who uses words like a scimitar. Justice Scalia has written more concurring opinions than any other justice and almost as many dissents. He doesn’t write like a lawyer, and you don’t have to be a Harvard man to understand what he says.
“[Justice] Scalia’s opinions read like they’re about to catch fire for pure outrage,” says one critic. “He does not, in short, write like a happy man.” But how could a man be happy, watching the barbarians turn his culture to ashes.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.