Scalia’s uncompromising style at times limited his impact on the Supreme Court
In life and in death, Antonin Scalia was lauded as a giant of the law and the most influential justice of his era.
But his is a complex legacy of a legal thinker who inspired and shaped a generation of conservatives, even though his landmark rulings were few.
Scalia, who will be buried Saturday following a funeral mass in Washington, enjoyed an outsized role at the Supreme Court. His sharp questioning, biting criticisms and searing wit transformed the once-staid tone of oral arguments, and he set a new standard for the art of the dissent. His well-known commitment to “originalism” forced lawyers to pay more attention to the words and history of the Constitution.
But in other ways Scalia’s impact was surprisingly limited. By one common measure of success – writing majority opinions in important cases that reshaped the law – Scalia fell somewhat short given his standing as the court’s strongest conservative and, at the end, its senior justice. Despite nearly 30 years on the bench and being surrounded by Republican appointees, he was often unable to reshape the law in line with his conservative views.
The same qualities that made Scalia such a transformational figure -- intellectual purity, supreme self-confidence and uncompromising positions -- at times made him a less effective justice.
Scalia has been compared in the last week to Justice William Brennan, a liberal champion who was hailed as the most influential justice of his time when he stepped down in 1990. Brennan had helped drive the effort in the 1960s and 1970s to desegregate America and extend the Constitution’s protections to police encounters on the street, to jailhouses, to public schools and much more. His quotable opinions were few because he often left the writing to clerks, but he was a master at aligning with other justices and putting together a five-member majority to change the law, and therefore history.
Scalia was never an affable playmaker like Brennan. His rigidity and scornful manner often alienated justices who might have been his allies. And his willingness -- sometimes eagerness, it seemed -- to go it alone explains why he was not often picked by the chief justice for the honor of writing important majority opinions. Instead that job often went to former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, O’Connor, Kennedy or current Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Unlike Brennan, Scalia drew his power and influence from his clear writing and logical analysis, even if they were dissents.
“Brennan was the consummate inside deal-maker, deftly able to patch together compromises,” said New York University law professor Richard Pildes. “Scalia’s influence came from the outside, from his philosophical clarity as well as his gift of analysis and language. Through his opinions, he exerted a gravitational pull on the law, even when he lost.”
Through his opinions, he exerted a gravitational pull on the law, even when he lost.
Richard Pildes, New York University law professor
And Scalia frequently found himself on the losing side. A few years after losing the abortion case, Rehnquist, the most solid of conservatives, wrote an opinion upholding the Miranda rule requiring police to warn suspects of their right to remain silent. Scalia angrily dissented.
Then over the last decade, Scalia stood by helplessly as the gay rights movement gained strength in the courts, culminating in last year’s landmark high court ruling upholding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.
Of course Scalia had his share of victories. His 2008 opinion in District of Columbia vs. Heller declared for the first time that the 2nd Amendment gave individuals a right to keep a handgun for self-defense. Before that, the court had said the “right to bear arms” was mostly about militias.
He also pressed the view that the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech barred the government from limiting political spending. His viewpoint prevailed in a 5-4 ruling in the Citizens United case, which struck down the campaign spending limits for corporations (though the opinion was given to Kennedy to write).
Scalia also was proud of his opinions that went against his tendencies. He joined a 5-4 opinion by Brennan in 1989 that upheld a protester’s right to burn an American flag. And he wrote the 2004 opinion in Crawford vs. Washington that strengthened the right of criminal defendants to confront their accusers in court.
Relatives walk past the casket as they leave a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court where late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose in Washington, DC.(Getty Images)
Ferom left; Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr.,; Ginny Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, and Justice Sonia Sotomayor attend a private ceremony in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court where late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose in Washington, DC.(JACQUELYN MARTIN / AFP/Getty Images)
Members of the public view a 2007 portrait by Nelson Shanks of late Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, as he lies in repose in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, in Washington, DC.(MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA)
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama pay their respects as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalias body lies in repose at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP/Getty Images)
Law clerks are relieved by the next team of law clerks as they stand vigil while members of the public walk through the Great Hall of the Supreme Court in Washington, where late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose.(Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)
The casket of Justice Antonin Scalia is carried by pallbearers between two lines of law clerks, up the steps of the Supreme Court, where the late justice will lie in repose.(Michael Reynolds / EPA)
The casket of Justice Antonin Scalia is carried by U.S. Supreme Court police officers, at the Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Scalia will lie in repose in the Great Hall, where visitors can pay their respects.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
Law clerks, past and present line the steps as the casket of Justice Antonin Scalia is carried by U.S. Supreme Court police officers up the steps of the Supreme Court building.(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)
One hundred and eighty law clerks line the stairs in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, awaiting the arrival of Justice Antonin Scalia’s casket at the court building in Washington, D.C.(Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
People watch as the casket of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)
A private memorial service will be held for Justice Antonin Scalia at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
Justice Antonin Scalia will lie in repose at the U.S. Supreme Court, where a private memorial service will be held for the late justice.(Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
Scalia’s many admirers say he was devoted to getting the law right. “By sheer force of intellect and personality, Scalia helped move the court from a sloppy, results-oriented center-left institution to a more intellectually rigorous center-right court,” said Stanford law professor Michael McConnell, a conservative former appeals court judge.
In his later years, Scalia, however, seemed to have given up on persuading his colleagues and said he was writing for the future, hoping his views on how to read the Constitution and the proper role of judges would influence the next generation of lawyers and law students.
He traveled the country and delighted in confronting liberal audiences on college campuses with his harsh take-down of the freewheeling liberalism that held sway in the early 1970s when he came to Washington.
Students regularly reported they’d expected to hear a right-wing ogre and came away from his speeches either agreeing with Scalia or at least a little shaken in their beliefs.
Despite his reputation for legal brilliance, Scalia may have undercut his influence by becoming a predictable vote for conservative causes, including for the Republican Party. His critics would never forget the Bush vs. Gore decision, where Scalia declared that trying to count the remaining ballots would risk “irreparable harm” to then-Gov. George W. Bush’s extremely narrow lead.
He also had a blind spot at times when it came to civil rights laws. Three years ago, when Southern Republicans challenged a key part of the Voting Rights Act, Scalia raised eyebrows by describing the historic law as a “racial entitlement.”
A justice who adhered to the words and history of the Constitution might have seen this as what Scalia liked to call “an easy case.” The law was based on the 15th Amendment, which said that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged” because of race and that “Congress shall have the power to enforce this article through appropriate legislation.” Instead, Scalia cast his vote with a 5-4 majority to strike down the law because the court’s conservatives concluded it was no longer needed. His critics said he was engaging in exactly the kind of judicial legislating that he had often railed against.
In his 2001 opinion in a dense regulation case, Scalia said major changes in law do not arise from minor, vague provisions. Congress does not “hide elephants in mouse holes,” he wrote. It has become one of the most quoted comments in legal briefs and judicial opinions.
On Twitter: @DavidGSavage
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