As the nation mourns the sudden loss of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative giant who had served on the nation’s high court for nearly 30 years, the debate over his legacy is only just beginning.
“In years to come, any history of the Supreme Court will, and must, recount the wisdom, scholarship and technical brilliance that Justice Scalia brought to the court,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy after news broke of Scalia’s Feb. 13 death.
But before the history books are written, first comes the 21st-century “legacy spin.” “Listicles” of the justice’s “zingers” will populate Internet news. Cable channel pundits will spend hours speculating on how Scalia’s absence will affect this year’s court decisions — several of which will have a deep impact on the Church (see Page 4). And bloggers will scrutinize each of Scalia’s opinions in search of ammunition for their various ideologically backed characterizations.
With the timing of his death, Scalia’s legacy also becomes automatically intertwined with that of another: the man or woman who eventually will succeed in filling the big shoes he has left behind. Without a doubt, the loss of the court’s conservative giant also only raises the stakes in an already bitterly divisive 2016 presidential election that, to put it mildly, has not shown Washington politics in the best light.
But while Scalia’s opinions will continue to be both greatly lauded and greatly censured for weeks, months and years to come, perhaps it is more helpful to look at a different kind of legacy: one that illustrates the depth of his Catholic faith and his desire to place the dignity of the individual person above ideology or judicial philosophy. This, perhaps, could be called Scalia’s “legacy of relationship,” best illustrated in his much-touted friendship with liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While the two could not have disagreed more when it came to the interpretation of the law, in life they were, she wrote after his death, “best buddies.” With their spouses, they spent holidays together and went on weekend trips. Like all good friendships, they learned from one another, they communicated with each other, they respected each other, and they were no doubt made better for it. It wasn’t just Ginsburg. Scalia also had a close relationship with liberal justice Elena Kagan and other justices.
There is a great lesson here for each of us, and one that is particularly timely for our country during this election season. Without sacrificing his strong opinions or his steadfast conservatism, Scalia was able to separate intellectual debate from personal relationships. While his strongly worded opinions often challenged those of his fellow justices, the snarky remarks were left to be transmitted by the pen of “Justice Antonin Scalia.” Face to face, he was “Nino,” valuing and nurturing friendships — an art that has been all but lost in polarized Beltway politics and in the world at large. If members of the Supreme Court, with the weight of the nation’s heftiest decisions resting on their shoulders, could embrace such civility, perhaps so could we all.
Such an approach is reminiscent of Pope Francis’ “culture of encounter” — the most recent dramatic example of which took place in Havana on Feb. 12 when the Holy Father met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill. For Pope Francis, dialogue trumps all else, because only by talking can you develop the common ground necessary to help benefit all. Perhaps no one understood that better than Justice Antonin Scalia. May he rest in peace.
Editorial Board members: Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor
The U.S. Supreme Court justices gather for an official picture at the court in Washington in 2010. Seated in the front row are, left to right, Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; back row, left to right, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Justice Stephen Breyer, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. and Justice Elena Kagan. (CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, Reuters)