It Will Be Easy to Replace Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death came as a shock to me—and not just because I had plans until recently to go hiking this weekend in Big Bend, Texas, where the justice died. Scalia has been a fixture on the Supreme Court for my entire legal career, and he didn’t seem to be going anywhere. During Barack Obama’s presidency, he hunkered down: no way would a Democrat appoint his successor. The right adored him as much as the left reviled him. He was the Court’s most colorful personality since William “Wild Bill” Douglas retired in 1975. Scalia’s family will miss him, and they are surely hurting right now. They have my sympathies. But as the tributes roll in and Scalia’s impact on the Court comes into focus, I predict a consensus will emerge that he has damaged the institution he served for so many years.

It is ironic that Scalia died during this particular presidential campaign, because he strongly resembled two leading Republican hopefuls: Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Like Trump, Scalia was larger than life. He took his elbows with him wherever he went. The more outrageous his rhetoric, the more his fans lapped it up. Scalia trashed his colleagues’ writing, calling it “preposterous” and compared it to “the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie”; their reasoning was “patently incorrect” and “transparently false.” With his low punches and salty talk, Scalia coarsened the Court—just as Trump has coarsened the presidency. As the much more restrained John Paul Stevens said to one of Scalia’s biographers, “I think everybody respects Nino’s ability and his style and all the rest. But everybody on the Court from time to time has thought he was unwise to take such an extreme position, both in tone and in the position.”

Like Ted Cruz, Scalia possessed a rare intellect. (Cruz, a former Supreme Court law clerk and appellate lawyer, was a big fan.) Scalia was for a time the Court’s most persuasive voice on technical matters like jurisdiction and procedure. He was an unquestionably talented writer. No justice had a quicker wit. Yet, also like Cruz, Scalia proved ineffective within the constraints of an organization, where cooperation and pragmatism tend to produce results. His strident behavior alienated the people around him. “Screams!” wrote Justice Harry Blackmun on a draft Scalia dissent in 1988. “Without the screaming, it could have been said in about 10 pages.” When a very junior Scalia commandeered an oral argument in 1987, Justice Lewis Powell whispered to a colleague on the bench, “Do you think he knows that the rest of us are here?” Scalia seemed to make a special point of picking on Anthony Kennedy, the Court’s swing voter for the past ten years, and an essential member of any 5-4 coalition. His inability to hold his fire or to build consensus meant that he was assigned few important majority decisions in the later years of his career.

I will remember Scalia mainly for the ugliness that permeated his opinions. He once wrote with astonishing callousness that it is not unconstitutional to execute an innocent person if that person has received a fair trial. He described affirmative action as “racial discrimination,” and mocked the notion that it could help students achieve “cross-racial understanding.” (No one squeezed more sarcasm out of a quotation mark.) A devout Roman Catholic, Scalia harbored a particular scorn for “the homosexual agenda,” writing in a paper-thin third-person: “Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”

Scalia had been slipping lately. He made a spectacle of himself before journalists, flipping his chin at them and giving needlessly provocative speeches. He openly flouted the Court’s recusal traditions, going on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney and then refusing to recuse himself from a suit against the vice president. He engaged in an unseemly public spat with Judge Richard Posner, going so far as to call Posner a liar after Posner panned Scalia’s latest book. The invective in his opinions and his behavior at oral argument had become truly outrageous, and caused many a citizen to associate the Supreme Court with cheap partisan point-scoring. It has been a long fall for what had been one of the most trusted institutions in government.

Scalia was a character, and he will be hard to forget. But in terms of quality in a Supreme Court justice, he will be easy to replace.

Michael O’Donnell

Michael O’Donnell is a writer and attorney who is a frequent contributor to the Washington Monthly. His writing also appears in the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal, and the Nation.