Justice Scalia and Conservatism

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This posting was originally a short speech given to students at the University of St. Thomas Law School on February 29.

We will all miss the unique and iconic personality of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Few if any Supreme Court Justices have been gifted with such charm, humor, charisma and pizzazz. He was a man of great faith; a brilliant and memorable writer; a witty raconteur; a powerful and bracing intellect. He argued law, as he lived life, with passion and gusto. In his impact on the American public, he was in a class of his own: among the Justices of the past, perhaps only Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Robert Jackson, and Thurgood Marshall can be compared to him. One might even say, with all due deference to Senator Cruz, that Justice Scalia was the living epitome of New York values.

But we are here to discuss his influence on the law, especially on constitutional law. And for all his great and varied gifts, his long tenure on the supreme bench, and the vigor and clarity of his opinions, his influence on constitutional law, at least judged from our current perspective, was very limited.

The two doctrines one associates most closely with Scalia’s jurisprudence are, of course, originalism and textualism. Others on this panel will no doubt discuss them, and I will say something about them a bit later. But what I want to consider briefly here is another important but neglected strand in his jurisprudence: his use of custom or tradition in constitutional adjudication. This aspect of his jurisprudence is, in my view, the most distinctively conservative element of it. There is no inherent connection between textualism or originalism and conservatism, but there is such a connection between custom and conservatism.

Nineteenth century legal conservatives such as James Coolidge Carter went so far as to identify law with custom. Or more accurately, they identified the common law with custom. One could say, in that spirit, that the common law identifies, articulates, stabilizes, and occasionally revises and improves, custom. And much of American Continue reading

The Optimist: Reflections on Justice Scalia

Some thoughts of mine on Justice Scalia at Commonweal. A bit from the end that is connected with our Tradition Project:

His optimism is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his Establishment Clause opinions, which express his appreciation for the traditions of the American accommodation of law and religion, and his hopeful expectation that American people would maintain, cherish, and be sustained by that inheritance. That optimism underlies much of his jurisprudence. In constitutional law, he believed that tradition is itself an independently powerfully reason in the law’s interpretation. That emphasis on American tradition led him to the view (often expressed in dissent) that “acknowledgement of the contribution that religion has made to our Nation’s legal and governmental heritage” is permissible under the Establishment Clause.

In my judgment, he was largely correct about this. Even more, however, Scalia was convinced that the American tradition of public religion—public prayer, for example—was a uniting force of civic fellowship. Hearing a public prayer in a tradition different from one’s own, he argued in his Lee v. Weisman dissent, would not lead to public discord, but to greater harmony, mutual understanding, and even civic “affection.” How old-fashioned this view seems amid today’s cacophony of demands for validation based on identity or interest group.

Yet it is in his free-exercise jurisprudence that Scalia’s optimism in the commonplace American character was tested and stretched to the breaking point. His seminal contribution was Employment Division v. Smith, where the Court held that a neutral law of general application did not implicate the Free Exercise Clause even if the law had the effect of burdening religion. Many critics of Smith (I am one) miss that what may first appear as a hard and parsimonious rule for religious freedom is closely coupled in Scalia’s opinion with a deep faith and optimism that people, acting through their legislatures, would do right by their religious brethren, would be magnanimous and charitable toward them whenever they could be:

Values that are protected against government interference through enshrinement in the Bill of Rights are not thereby banished from the political process. Just as a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to the press by the First Amendment is likely to enact laws that affirmatively foster the dissemination of the printed word, so also a society that believes in the negative protection accorded to religious belief can be expected to be solicitous of that value in its legislation as well.

Scalia was determinedly sanguine in his opinions about American solicitude for religion. Religious liberty and tolerant good will could never be eradicated from the core spirit and innate generosity of the American people. The people might go astray; they might make mistakes. But in the long run and in the main, the best and most secure outcomes for religious freedom will reflect popular negotiations rather than Court-imposed “solutions.”

So sanguine was he that even as late as 2012, Scalia—a deeply faithful and committed Catholic—could obdurately persist in telling John Allen in an interview that “if the bishops want an exception from the law [in this case the contraception mandate in Obamacare], they should try to get it through the democratic process…. Americans are very generous about accommodating religious beliefs.” The Congress that passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 was more pessimistic in its long-term assessment of the character of the American people. Alas, it was probably more accurate as well.

In fact, one may wonder whether Justice Scalia’s faith in the American people in the long run will be rewarded. Certainly he must have had his doubts. Especially toward the end, he must have known and regretted that his “wins” were so “damn few.” So they were, and so, perhaps, they will be. But to Scalia’s great credit, those doubts and regrets never appeared in his written opinions. And over the truly long run, optimism is not so bad a bet.

My Review of “Reading Law” by Justice Scalia and Bryan Garner

Commonweal has posted my review of Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner. The piece is behind a paywall, I’m afraid. The review reflects on the nature and value of the canons of textual interpretation–the book’s primary focus. Indeed, it might have been better if the canons had been the book’s exclusive focus. The sections devoted to constitutional theory are not the best parts of the book. The review also discusses the sense in which–notwithstanding the skeptical criticism that has been leveled at them throughout the realist period and thereafter–the canons create something like a linguistic tradition for lawyers. Here is a fragment:

Some of the most interesting studies of law approach it as a distinctive tradition. And like many traditions, law has its own language which informs and suffuses the thought of those who think and speak through it. If the language of the law is not preserved—if it decays through lack of use, disregard, or skeptical dismissal as just so much transcendental nonsense—then the tradition of law dies as well . . . .The core aim of the book is to retrieve and systematize one of the law’s most important and enduring linguistic traditions—the canons of textual interpretation. The canons are not rules as much as rules-of-thumb, presumptions about the meaning of legal texts. Skill in legal interpretation involves the capacity to discern when a canon should, and should not, yield to countervailing considerations . . . .

Reading Law is, as the authors put it, a normative treatise that introduces the language of law to an audience for whom it is largely alien while offering a refresher course for attorneys and judges who have forgotten (or who never really learned) their canons. Like all treatises, the point is not to read through from front to back and I cannot recommend marching through the book’s 414 pages (that’s before the appendices). No one who isn’t looking for it will much miss the “Scope-of-Subparts Canon” explaining the relationship of subparts to parts, or the “Punctuation Canon,” which warns against “hostility to punctuation” and whose examples include various obscure nineteenth-century precedents involving the use of semicolons. But lawyers faced with interpretive problems will find in Reading Law a pathway to a set of linguistic precepts that structure and enrich the tradition of American law. That is a worthy contribution.

Earthly and Infernal Judges

Justice Scalia has caused quite a stir by confessing to the New York Magazine that he believes in hell. I suppose that belief in heaven is deemed somewhat less distressing today, though perhaps just as off the wall. Hell is very unfashionable–indeed, tiresomely obsolete.

The reporter in this Huffington Post story wonders how belief in heaven Minos the Judgeand hell affects Justice Scalia’s judgment on the Supreme Court. But of course, if hell exists, that’s a perfectly trivial matter. What he ought to be asking about is the far more relevant and important question of how judgment is meted out in hell.

As to that issue, fortunately we have an unimpeachable authority:

There stands Minos horribly, and snarls;
Examines the transgressions at the entrance;
Judges, and sends according as he girds him.
I say, that when an evil spirit
Comes before him, wholly it confesses;
And this discriminator of transgressions
Sees what place in Hell is meet for it;
Girds himself with his tail as many times
As grades he wishes it should be thrust down.
Always before him many of them stand;
They go by turns each one unto the judgment;
They speak, and hear, and then are downward hurled.

Dante, The Divine Comedy: Inferno, Canto V.

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