WASHINGTON — “Autumn in New York” — the words cascade from Sinatra on my iPod, and I am on my way. It is a perfect time to be in Manhattan, and this week I shall be there for several days. “Why does it seem so exciting,” Old Blue Eyes croons on. My answer to him, wherever he might be, is that this week in New York the 2005 Columbus Week Celebrations are underway.
There will be exuberant celebrations of Italian-Americans at song, in the kitchen, and engaged in all the other civilized pursuits for which they have demonstrated such flair. From the Old Country the Italians have sent sports cars, wines, and other specimens of Italian art and commerce. But this year the Columbus Week will feature something at once extraordinary and timely. One week after President Bush announced yet another nominee to the Supreme Court, prompting another ghoulish Senate hearing, the liveliest mind now on the Court, Antonin Scalia, is serving as Grand Marshal of the Columbus Day Parade.
Justice Scalia is renowned for his learning, his wit, and his love of debate. He will be around all weekend and you can be sure that at every event he attends — whether the elegant Saturday night Gala at the Waldorf or the Sunday morning concert at Columbus Circle or the parade itself — the Justice will be a memorable presence. Scalia is one of the most invigorating minds in Washington and one of the most principled. He is famed for his intellectual jousting but also for his good nature.
The jousting is almost always about serious matters, often the role of the courts in our system of government, and the relevance of our Constitution. In honoring Scalia, the son of Italian immigrants (his father was a professor of Romance languages), the Columbus Citizens Foundation, which sponsors the Columbus Week Celebration, has put together an exceptional Supreme Court Exhibit in Grand Central Terminal’s Vanderbilt Hall. Says Lawrence Auriana, the Foundation’s ebullient president: “The United States Supreme Court, which is the subject of great interest recently, is one of America’s most important contributions to civilization yet its history and functions are little understood by many people.”
Thus there is in Vanderbilt Hall an exhibit on the workings of the Court with story boards that with the coming hearings on Harriet Miers, the latest nominee to the Court, should be of immediate interest to everyone. There is also an exhibit of old and invaluable documents that suggest the development of the Court in our Constitutional evolution. One such document is an exact engraving of the Declaration of Independence dating from 1823. There is the Connecticut Courant and Weekly Intelligencer‘s original 1787 printing of the Constitution, and there are letters from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
The most interesting letters are to be found in the correspondence of Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin with two distinguished 18th century Italian intellectuals about the possible development of law in America. Franklin’s correspondent, the Neapolitan Gaetano Filangieri, was a proponent of the free press, proportionality in criminal punishment, free trade and other ideas deemed daring in his time but soon to be part of American law. Jefferson’s correspondent, Filippo Mazzei, a Florentine, actually came to live near him in Virginia. He has now been recognized as the originator of Jefferson’s famous term, “All men are created equal.”
Finally, along with the ancient documents is an exhibit focusing on New York’s hometown boy, Scalia. Highlighted in this exhibit is a statement by him that illuminates the controversies over the present Supreme Court vacancy and probably those to come. “The Constitution is an enduring document but not a living one. And its meaning must not be altered to suit the whims of society.” That reminds me of a testimonial delivered to Scalia recently by one of the greatest living Supreme Court lawyers, former Solicitor General Ted Olson. “His opinions have special weight because they are written in a particularly engaging, persuasive and readable style. He brings passion to logic.” You can be sure Justice Scalia will bring passion to the Columbus Day Parade.