Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

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This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf
This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing. Stephen Cox's elegy is here. - See more at: http://libertyunbound.com/node/1519#sthash.dl79qO6R.dpuf

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Andrew Ferguson speaks ill of the dead here.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who died on February 12, was a person of intransigent mind, with a well-justified contempt for the intellectual weakness and silliness of his professional colleagues. He was the greatest influence on the Supreme Court in its present period and the Court’s best writer since, perhaps, the 1930s. He was devoted to the idea that the Constitution means what it says, not what a momentarily prestigious legal philosophy thinks it should say. He tried to interpret the Constitution according to its actual words, not according to the results he himself might have preferred. For that reason, his passing is a disaster for everyone who believes in constitutional, and therefore limited, government.

Among other good things, Scalia:

  • Attempted to keep organs of the executive branch from becoming “junior varsity Congress[es],” establishing rules, procedures and “guidelines” that had the force of law.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the power to circumvent the Constitution’s search-and-seizure provisions by the use of new electronic methods.
  • Spoke for the Court in denying government the right to use claims of “hate speech” to circumvent constitutional rights.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining Americans’ rights to gun ownership in the crucial Heller case, and dissented forcefully when the Court declined to consider more advanced Second-Amendment cases.
  • Spoke for the Court in maintaining the right to sell ultraviolent video games.
  • Memorably opposed the majority decisions upholding Obamacare: “The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says ‘Exchange established by the State’ it means ‘Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.’ That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.”
  • In connection with the same decisions, stripped the mask of impartiality from his colleagues’ sorry faces: “Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. . . . And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.”
  • Provided the deciding vote for freedom and fairness in eminent domain, in the Williamson Country Regional Planning case.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “balancing act” criteria in decisions about constitutional rights.
  • Was strongly influential in arguing against the use of “legislative history” as a way of qualifying or reversing the explicit meaning of statutes.

This list might be greatly extended. I could also compile a list of Scalia’s inconsistencies and blindnesses. But the fact is that for decades Scalia was the intellectual leader of the Court, whenever it admitted of any intellectual leadership, and the best bulwark of constitutionalists against the ability of modern-liberal judges to make the constitution what their ideology thinks it ought to be.

Scalia was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there.

Many libertarians don’t like Scalia, because of his particular rulings. So be it. But the disagreement often goes deeper. It goes to the philosophy of interpretation that many libertarians maintain. They think the Constitution was written to express broad principles of individual freedom and that its wording must always be interpreted in that light. Like modern liberals, who frequently refer to the Constitution as a “living entity,” the meanings of which are not bound by its actual wording, they want judicial decisions to embody a wide range of rights (i.e., a right to “privacy”) that never come close to being mentioned by the Constitution. If you want a judge to find them there, how can you object when the judge finds a lot of other things that aren’t there, and enforces them? This is what modern liberal jurists have been doing for several generations, and libertarians should not try to wish it away by appealing to essentially the same philosophy.

It was in his opposition to such ideas that Scalia truly distinguished himself. He was an unembarrassed believer in the idea that the Constitution should be interpreted in the same way as any other text — by reading what is there and not what we want to be there. He knew he would be despised as unsophisticated, at best, and as a mere advocate of his own bigotries, at worst. He repaid scorn with scorn — and who would not be scornful of the sophistries of Chief Justice Roberts, cynically arguing for the constitutionality of Obamacare immediately after he had argued for its unconstitutionality, or the inanities of the four modern liberal justices, who never saw a modern liberal law they didn’t like? What reflective person would deny Scalia’s contention that "the risk of assessing evolving standards is that it is all too easy to believe that evolution has culminated in one's own views"? When Scalia joined the Court, this idea, though obvious, had been evaded for far too long, with devastating effects on the constitution’s system of limited government. Scalia’s aggressive advocacy of “textualism” gave it new importance, made its intellectual power impossible to ignore.

The truth is that the Constitution, if interpreted in the light of what it says, not of the pleasant emanations we sometimes feel radiating from its penumbra, would give us a world incomparably more libertarian than the one we currently inhabit. It would not be a world governed solely by principles of individual right, because the Constitution was not written solely to do that. But it would be a world so free that it would be a pleasure to suggest the few revisions that would complete the picture — instead of spending immense amounts of time and money fighting off attacks by modern liberals and conservatives who believe in legislating from the bench. And this is what people who care about individual freedom will now have to do, during the long, intellectually dismal period between Justice Scalia’s death and the confirmation of his successor.




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Antonin Scalia, R.I.P.

 | 

This week Liberty's editors provide two different takes on Justice Scalia's passing.
Stephen Cox's elegy is here.

Antonin Scalia, longtime associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was a talented writer whose position afforded him innumerable chances to wield his pen in forceful argument for his often curiously shifting but nonetheless deeply felt views. He was also by some distance the most public justice, often giving speeches laying out his judicial philosophy and thoughts on upcoming jurisprudence, sometimes to the point that he had to recuse himself from a case.

Scalia’s pompous blowhardity made him a gleefully divisive figure in the highest court of a land drifting ever farther away from his own conservative, masculinist Catholicism. After Harvard Law and a little while in private practice, Scalia taught for several years at the University of Virginia Law School, and would later return to academia at the University of Chicago. His own jurisprudence bore the hallmarks of his time as a teacher: his opinions—which, unlike many justices, he did not largely hand off to his passel of clerks—were didactic, condescending, and all-too-aware of the distance between his enrobed augustness and all else outside the cloakroom.

As a public figure, Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed. He scarcely met a presidential prerogative he didn’t like, whether the right to order the torture of supposed enemies, deny due process at will, or pursue “interstate commerce” into the individual home. Despite his famed “faint-hearted originalism,” Scalia was never far from trampling over the Ninth and Tenth Amendments in the service of executive might. Even when his decisions favored a broadly libertarian policy, such as eliminations of gun control or overturnings of illegal searches, they often did so in a way that declined to limit future exercises of the power of the state. More often, though, when he looked to the Constitution, he found justifications for his own predilections to expand use of the death penalty even to the mentally disabled, criminalize homosexual acts, and sign onto four separate dissents against gay marriage.

Scalia devoted himself above all else to the preservation of executive-branch powers, whether actually enumerated or distantly dreamed.

It is, in one sense, ironic that the first response of Republican legislators to the death of their originalist hero was to defy constitutional statements clearly allowing the sitting president, no matter how lame a duck he might be, to suggest a replacement for the fallen justice. But it’s certainly not surprising: in this, the GOP is simply following Scalia’s own example (as well as that of basically every other politician), honoring and vociferously upholding the Constitution when it supports their own tribal position, and ignoring it as soon as it suits them to do so.

There remains a great deal to sort out in the wake of Justice Scalia’s sudden death. Any cases for which decisions have not been rendered, even those which have been argued and voted upon, will not take Scalia’s vote into account. In the short term, this means public unions nationwide get a reprieve from right-to-work measures, and President Obama’s climate change plan is likely to survive a little longer. In the medium term, it means a nasty confirmation fight, as Obama tries to get a justice though a Republican Congress with no intention to allow one. (Probably the worst case here, actually, is a compromise candidate in the form of a socially moderate, tough-on-crime-and-terroists type, à la David Barron.) In the long run, the court has lost its most entertaining and most self-consciously intellectual jurist. We could do with a few less like him.



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