On the Passing of Justice Antonin Scalia

This piece originally appeared 15 February 2016 as installment #100 in the e-mail newsletter series Kristol Clear  under the title "Antonin Scalia (1936-2016)", and the byline William Kristol

Late Great Justice Antonin Scalia

William KristolNino Scalia would have appreciated, even been amused by, Sunday's Washington Post banner headline announcing his death: "Supreme Court conservative dismayed liberals." Scalia didn't mind dismaying liberals due to his attachment to the Constitution and the rule of law. And he had the self-confidence and sense of humor to take such a farcically inappropriate headline in stride. But think about it: One of the giants of the Supreme Court (and not just of the modern Supreme Court but of the history of the Supreme Court), a central figure in the revitalization of a whole approach or set of approaches to the Constitution and constitutional law, the author of some of the most important opinions and some of the greatest dissents ever to issue from that bench, a towering figure in our public life, dies — and the headline of the paper of record in our nation's capital focuses on the fact that he "dismayed liberals." What an example of the decay of modern liberalism into un-self-conscious solipsism!

Nino Scalia was a great jurist, an important figure in modern conservatism, and a wonderful man. We'll pay appropriate tribute to him in our next issue. For now, let me quote from posts Jonathan Last and Vic Matus wrote over the weekend that give a glimpse of Nino Scalia the man.

Here's Jonathan Last:

The first time I saw Justice Antonin Scalia in the flesh was in college. He came to speak at my school, which was a broadly apolitical place. There were no protests. He gave a brief talk on the idea of originalism — easily the most engaging lecture of my four years — and then he took questions. Justice Scalia at podiumFor close to two hours he stood onstage and answered myriad queries from a collection of professors, community members, and students. It was like watching Ted Williams take batting practice. Except that in addition to possessing an intellect that was truly intimidating, Scalia was also jovial and good-natured.

At one point, one of the few student radicals on campus rose to ask Scalia a question. I don't remember the specifics of it; I think it was about slavery. Scalia's answer reduced her-literally-to tears. She started crying and ran up the aisle and out of the theater. This was before the "safe space" era, when people who conducted themselves as such were not taken seriously. What made the biggest impression on me that night was Scalia's genuine compassion. He called after her and asked her to come back to the microphone so they could talk some more. She didn't.

But I was struck that a justice of the Supreme Court would be willing to extend a conversation, in public, with an hysterical 20-year-old, on a subject about which she knew next to nothing. Then, it seemed to me the most intellectually generous act I'd ever seen. It still does.

* * *

The next time I saw Scalia in person — the only other time — was in 2009, when he came to have lunch with the editorial staff at The Weekly Standard. The lunch was off-the-record, but with his passing, it's probably fair to relate some of the content of the discussion. None of this is earth-shattering; all of it is probably known somewhat widely....

What I will never forget from that lunch was the genuine affection Scalia had for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He called her "Ruthie" and spoke of her not the way you describe a close work colleague — not even the way you talk about a good friend& mdash; but the way a man talks about a beloved sister. I sat that afternoon trying to think of a figure on the left who speaks that way about an ideological foe and couldn't come up with one. I still can't.

All of which is to say that, to me, at least, Antonin Scalia was one of the few D.C. characters who, in person, was larger than life — in the best ways.

And here's Vic Matus:

In 2008, I was invited to judge a wine-and-oyster pairing competition at the Old Ebbitt Grill. It was a great deal: Rank 20 glasses of whites in order of your liking alongside all the Olympia oysters you can eat. Food writers and oenophiles I expected to see there. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia?

This shouldn't have come as a surprise. Scalia was a man of many appetites. He was also built like a tank. Two chairs down from me, I could see the justice thoughtfully swishing around his glasses, gesturing to the waiter to bring over another iced tray of Olympias. In the end, I downed 43 oysters. Scalia had more. It was a sight to behold.

Afterwards, the judges were invited upstairs to a reception. At the bar, I caught up with Scalia who confessed he preferred beer with oysters (and ordered a beer at the bar). He also said the white varietals all too often reminded him of apples. At some point, he and I and three other judges sat at a table. Scalia then proceeded to order dinner from the menu even though we were still recovering from the competition. But he shot the rest of us a stare that got us to all order dinner. How could we not?

Needless to say, it was a great dinner. We all had questions, and Scalia didn't shrink from answering. He didn't worry about being quoted. He loved to engage in debate with the liberals at the table and the liberals loved it, too. I called him justice but another man kept calling him Nino. Scalia didn't seem to mind.

Justice Scalia laughsHe did seem to mind that I was from Jersey — I figured since he was originally from there, we had at least that much in common. But his family moved to Queens when he was a child whereas my family moved from New York to the Jersey Shore. He jokingly waved me off, as if to say, "Go back to Jersey" (at least I think he was joking). This happened a second time when I mentioned to him we both went to Georgetown. Scalia attended the College of Arts and Sciences. So when I told him I went to the School of Foreign Service, he again dismissed me with a wave of his hand. He was funny the entire night. He made jokes about his going hunting. He ordered dessert. (And yes, he glowered at all of us until we all ordered dessert.)

I invited him to come to our office and speak to the editorial staff over lunch. And just like at the dinner, he took every single question head on, complaining primarily about the federal docket not just being backlogged by cases, but overwhelmed by them. Many of these cases don't belong in federal court, he insisted. They can and should be handled at the lower level.

Why did he go into law in the first place? When he was at Georgetown, he would spend time with his Uncle Vinnie, who was an attorney. ("Every Italian has an uncle named Vinnie," he was fond of saying.) Scalia liked what he saw and the rest is history.

All I have to add is what I wrote in my short post Saturday afternoon, after hearing the sad news: "There were giants in the earth in those days."

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia


get updates