Justice Antonin Scalia: 1936-2016

February 22, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Antonin ScaliaHe was a man who combined a first-class intellect with a caustic whit.  The world lost not only a legal titan, but a brilliant mind when Justice Antonin Scalia passed away.  Sadly, some cheered his death in a macabre display of twisted politically-driven hatred.  Others – even those who disagreed with him politically and legally – were far more charitable.

Justice Scalia was fiercely devoted to Constitutional originalism.  He defined his originalism this way:

The Constitution that I interpret and apply is not living but dead, or as I prefer to call it, enduring. It means today not what current society, much less the court, thinks it ought to mean, but what it meant when it was adopted.[1]

His originalism came out in many ways, especially in his dissents. His famous 2001 dissent in PGA Tour, Inc. v. Casey Martin, for instance, is the stuff of legend.  Mr. Martin was a golfer who wanted to participate in the PGA Tour, but could not because had a degenerative leg disorder that prevented him from walking any considerable distance.  PGA rules required golfers to walk all 18 holes.  He sued the PGA under The Americans with Disabilities Act.  The high court ruled in his favor, noting, contrary to the PGA’s assertion, that using a golf cart does not “fundamentally alter the nature of the competition,” but its majority opinion did not find favor with Justice Scalia who believed the Court should not get involved in defining what does and does not constitute actual golf.  In a sarcastic dissent, he wrote:

It has been rendered the solemn duty of the Supreme Court of the United States, laid upon it by Congress in pursuance of the Federal Government’s power “[t]o regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States,” U. S. Const., Art. I, §8, cl. 3, to decide What Is Golf. I am sure that the Framers of the Constitution, aware of the 1457 edict of King James II of Scotland prohibiting golf because it interfered with the practice of archery, fully expected that sooner or later the paths of golf and government, the law and the links, would once again cross, and that the judges of this august Court would some day have to wrestle with that age-old jurisprudential question, for which their years of study in the law have so well prepared them: Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer? The answer, we learn, is yes. The Court ultimately concludes, and it will henceforth be the Law of the Land, that walking is not a “fundamental” aspect of golf.[2]

No other Justice could turn the legal into the comedic the way Justice Scalia did.

At the same time Justice Scalia was a legal scholar, he was also a devoted Catholic.  In a speech at a Living the Catholic Faith Conference, he rumbled:

God assumed from the beginning that the wise of the world would view Christians as fools…and he has not been disappointed.…If I have brought any message today, it is this: Have the courage to have your wisdom regarded as stupidity. Be fools for Christ. And have the courage to suffer the contempt of the sophisticated world.[3]

Justice Scalia’s call to endure scoffing from others for the sake of faith in and a witness to the gospel is quintessentially Christian.  It is also, I would add, experientially true.  After all, Justice Scalia himself had to endure countless questions – not all of which were inappropriate, but many of which were the product of a secular skepticism – about his faith and the ways in which he exercised it.

Of course, Justice Scalia did and does have his supporters – including some of those who most vehemently disagreed with him during his life.  In a remembrance penned by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justices, she wrote of Justice Scalia:

He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his “energetic fervor,” “astringent intellect,” “peppery prose,” “acumen,” and “affability,” all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp … It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.[4]

For all of their political and legal differences, these two justices were best friends.  And it is here that we find one of Justice Scalia’s most important legacies.  Justice Scalia was strongly opinionated.  He did not mince words concerning his legal or theological views.  There was no question as to where he stood.  But at the same time he was intellectually rigorous as a justice and theologically rigorous as a Catholic, he was also relationally generous.  He befriended and loved even some of those with whom he vehemently disagreed.

From prostitutes to adulterers to tax collectors to religious elites, there was once another man who behaved similarly.  He too could be known for His “peppery prose.”  “You snakes! You brood of vipers!” He once thundered, “How will you escape being condemned to hell” (Matthew 23:33)?  But the same people He thundered against in His words, He also died for on a cross.  He was most certainly intellectually and theologically rigorous.  Indeed, he was more:  He was intellectually and theologically perfect.  But He was – and is – also relationally generous.  And somehow, the two went and worked together for us and for our salvation.

Justice Scalia leaves behind an impressive professional legacy.  And he will continue to be criticized – sometimes thoughtfully and sometimes angrily – for many things.  But beyond his professional legacy is his personal example of how intellectual and theological rigor can go hand in hand with relational generosity.  They went hand in hand in him.  And in this, Justice Scalia reflected how they go hand in hand in Christ.

At Justice Scalia’s funeral this past Saturday, his son, the Reverend Paul Scalia, began his homily:

We are gathered here because of one man, a man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to many more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy and for great compassion … That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.[5]

In his son’s mind, Justice Scalia’s greatest legacy is found not in what his father accomplished, but in how his father reflected Christ – even if imperfectly.  This is why, for Reverend Scalia, Justice Scalia’s funeral was not about Justice Scalia.  It was about Jesus.

May we be about Jesus too.

________________________

[1] NPR Staff, “Originalism: A Primer On Scalia’s Constitutional Philosophy,” npr.org (2.17.2016).

[2] PGA Tour, Inc. v. Casey Martin, 532 U.S. 661 (2001) (Scalia, J., dissenting)

[3] Ken McIntyre, “The Wit and Wisdom of Scalia: Nine Zingers,” Newsweek (2.14.2016).

[4] Marina Fang, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg Remembers Antonin Scalia, Her Dear Friend And Sparring Partner,” Huffington Post (2.14.2016).

[5] Julie Zauzmer, “A moving homily for Justice Scalia by his son, Rev. Paul Scalia,” The Washington Post (2.20.2016).

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The Fight to Defeat Zika Wrong and Wrong-er

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  • 1. 2016 in Review | Pastor Zach's Blog  |  January 2, 2017 at 5:33 am

    […] Fear of the Zika virus sweeps the nation as a woman in Dallas contracts the disease. Justice Antonin Scalia, a fierce proponent of Constitutional originalism, passes away, leaving a vacancy on the high court […]

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