Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived
By Antonin Scalia
Edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan
(Crown Forum, 420 pages, $30)
There have been a lot of positive reviews of the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s recently released book of speeches. This will be another one. What’s not to like? The speeches were selected by his son, Christopher Scalia, and a former law clerk, Edward Whelan, from the many the justice delivered over the last 30 years or so of his life. They show not only an articulate and scholarly jurist with a well thought-out and consistent view of the law, but a full-service human being, full of insights and humor about the roller-coaster we call life, which he was very good at living.
Those who’ve read Scalia’s opinions, especially his occasionally acerbic dissents, know he was a clear, persuasive, and amusing writer. (I lift up 2004’s Scalia Dissents — Regnery — still available.) Can you feature it? Legal opinions that one can read for pleasure. What next?
Antonin Gregory “Nino” Scalia, born in Trenton, New Jersey and raised in the Elmhurst section of Queens, was one lawyer who didn’t have clarity, coherence, humor, and humanity beaten out of him in three years of law school, an institution that seems to be a sworn enemy of all four. Those reading these speeches, or watching them delivered on YouTube, will learn that Scalia was as good behind a podium as he was on a word processor. He’s a treat to read or listen to. The man had content and style.
Many of these 48 speeches — given before various schools, universities, and organizations of all sorts — focus on his legal philosophy called “originalism,” which holds that words have meaning, even in a Constitution, and we should interpret our governing document on the basis of what the framers meant when they wrote it. And this meaning is unchanging. His reasoning — my paraphrase here, not his, but I think I’ve captured his point — is that if the Constitution doesn’t mean on Friday what it meant on Monday, then who the hell knows what it will mean next week? This being the case, what’s the point of having a Constitution? Such a fluid and useless document would protect no one or nothing except current fads and those in political power.
This view of the Constitution, or one very like it, was held by most Supreme Court justices until about the middle of the last century, reflecting an understanding that one cannot coherently run a large, complex enterprise like America if the basic ground rules are moving targets. Alas, this sensible approach is increasingly giving way to a more political approach to our basic document. The more loosey-goosey approach, popular with the ever-expanding “living document” crowd who insist the meaning of the Constitution must change to suit changing times, helps facilitate the politicalizing of the law. Under this kind of legal regime, judges and justices can and often do simply substitute their own judgments on various matters for those of the people elected to make those judgements. Whatever judges don’t like must be unconstitutional — whatever they fancy must be a constitutionally protected right. We see this all the time. Scalia would have none of it.
From himself on this matter:
One of the interesting features of the massive modern attack upon originalism is that, while its opponents are unified in the view that that mode of interpretation is wrong, they display no agreement whatever upon what is right — that is to say, no agreement upon what criterion of constitutional meaning should replace it.
The problem with making the Constitution an all-purpose embodiment of our current preferences — pro-abortion, anti-abortion, or anything else — is that it deprives the Constitution of its essential character as an obstacle to majority self-will and converts it (ironically) into a mechanism for placing the majority’s current will beyond further debate.
Happily, the speeches don’t just deal with Scalia’s view on the law and its proper place, but include his take on sports, writing, turkey hunting, education, and what it means to be an American. Scalia, all-American, is proud of his Italian heritage. He’s a huge fan of and savvy about Italian opera. And he believes, unlike PC killjoys, that ethnic humor can be enjoyed. See Italian View of the Irish. His Catholic faith is central to him, and we learn in several speeches the importance of belief in life and his views on the proper relationship between church and state.
• “There were no soccer moms (when he was a youngster) because there was no soccer. Americans overwhelmingly preferred baseball, a game in which a lot of players stand around while not much happens, to soccer, a game in which people run back and forth furiously while not much happens.” (Scalia liked baseball more than this suggests. He was in fact a New York Yankees fan, one of the few flaws I can find in the man, but perhaps understandable considering where he came up.)
• “Today, sad to say, not only is moral formation not an objective of higher education, it is virtually a forbidden topic. For to have strong views on right and wrong is to be discriminating, which is the only sin left on campus; just as toleration is the only universally acknowledged virtue.”
• “One can be sophisticated and believe in God — heck, a First Mover is at least as easy to believe in as a Big Bang triggered by nothingness.”
Scalia’s speeches are delivered in ways that are both learned and streetwise, and with the timing of a good standup. Those who choose to watch them online will see this. “Dad’s speeches provided a chance for him to perform,” son Christopher says in the introduction. “My father was a ham.”
But what an engaging one. If only the product of more of the world’s hams were as worthwhile as that of Justice Scalia. He’s gone now — may he rest in peace. But he has left behind a treasure of wit and wisdom that will live a very long time, not least in Scalia Speaks, which more than earns its way into Santa’s book bag.