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Friday, May 16, 2014

An Interview with Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia

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Justice Antonin Scalia Justice Antonin Scalia

 “...the judiciary, from the nature of its functions, will always be the least dangerous to the political rights of the Constitution...It may be said to have neither force nor will, but merely judgment...” Alexander Hamilton, Federalist #78


It is cherry blossom time, and tourists from around the country and the world are walking the streets of the District of Columbia in large and small groups, winding their way through the crowded streets. Others, especially those on school trips, arrive in buses that seem to be as tall as two-story buildings. It is a busy time in the nation’s capital, but an eerie silence greets you when you enter the area that houses the chambers of the Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Justice Scalia’s secretary greets you with a warm smile, asking about your trip. The outer office is cavernous with large bay windows providing a great deal of light, and the carpet muffling any delinquent sounds that might arise in the corridor. There are paintings of former Justices on the wall, and law books that line the shelves.


She asks you to wait, but returns shortly and escorts you through a narrow foyer that leads into the Justice’s inner sanctum, this, too, with large bay windows, the omnipresent shelved legal texts, and an addition: a fireplace. Beyond it are various citations and awards; family photos are noticeable around the room. Seated behind a large desk with papers protruding from law books piled one on the other, the Justice comes around to greet you. His welcome is equally warm and has a ring of sincerity about it; he has a smile that puts the visitor at ease. All of your senses confirm that you have met a personable and pleasant man, a man who just happens to be a Supreme Court Justice. 

In my interview, conducted in his chambers, that broached a wide range of subjects, the Senior Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia, offered his views on topics as varied as his role as a member of the Court that is the final arbiter of political rights under the U.S. Constitution, and his thoughts of entering the clergy as a young man. Justice Scalia – the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court are referred to as Justices, not judges – was appointed by President Reagan and began serving on the High Court in 1986 after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate 98-0. Asked if he were nominated today would he have unanimous support in being confirmed, the Justice responded that one senator, among several others, who later “regretted” his vote to confirm him is the current Vice-President, Joe Biden.

In the intervening years, Justice  Scalia has demonstrated an uncanny ability to write colorful and trenchant legal opinions, including some memorable dissents (Kevin Ring compiled them: Scalia Dissents 2004) acknowledged by even those who disagree with him, often strongly, about his view of the limits imposed on a Supreme Court Justice’s interpretation the U.S. Constitution. Today many would question Hamilton’s view that within the trifecta of U.S. government the judiciary is “the least dangerous” because of the Court’s “legislating from the bench,” and perhaps Hamilton, if he were alive today, would concur.

Is there more, however, to Justice Scalia than his recognized ability to give talks that amuse spectators, or his repeatedly demonstrated talent in asking questions and making comments that cause the audience in the Court, many of whom are lawyers, to laugh aloud? 

A recent article by the The Washington Post reporter who covers the Supreme Court claimed that if the nine Justices were graded on a laugh meter which sought to rank who had, by virtue of his comments, provoked the most laughter, Justice Scalia would rank #1. None of the other eight came close. After sitting through dozens of oral arguments, I can personally testify to the validity of that result.

Although a lot is known about the legal life of Justice Scalia, what can be said about the personal side of this man outside the halls of the Court or away from the lecture circuit? In short, what kind of man is he? We know that he shaves each morning, and puts on his trousers one leg at a time, but beyond that.

For example, given that he is an only child, how influential were his parents in his religious development? Or, as a parent, what is Justice Scalia’s religious influence on his 9 children (no typo) and 34, “and two on the way” grandchildren? The answers to those questions along with others I believe the readers of The Remnant are most interested in is what I sought to explore during our meeting.

It is not widely known that the Justice’s father, not his grandfather, was born in Sicily, and when SalvatoreEugenio Scalia arrived in the U.S., like most immigrants of the time from southern Europe, he spoke little English. In time, however, he would master the language and after “Gene” Scalia received a doctorate from Colombia University, he was offered a position to teach Romance Languages at Brooklyn College in NYC, which caused the Scalia family to move from Trenton, New Jersey to New York. (N.B.: I know one of his former students, although I never met Professor Scalia while I was a student at the college.) Scalia’s mother, Catherine (nee) Panaro, the daughter of immigrants, became a school teacher.

There was, then, an intellectual ambience growing up in the Scalia household, something the Justice emphasizes: “My father was the true intellectual of the family, for he was never without a book – in Italian, Spanish or French – in front of his face.” It was he who, according to the Justice, “...was a man of the mind,” and “who lifted the family fortunes.”

Yet despite this emphasis on the intellect, Scalia’s father, this “wonderful scholar,” also imbued his son with the belief that intelligence was not the only thing that mattered: “Son, brains are like muscles, you can hire them by the hour, but the only thing that is not for sale is character.”

As a young boy, Scalia’s mother was the devout Catholic parent in the family; his father did not attend Mass, not an uncommon trait amongst Sicilian men of that era, but as he aged, Gene Scalia became increasingly devout and conservative, a rarity amongst the professoriate at Brooklyn College to be sure.

It was at Xavier, a Jesuit high school in New York City, that the young Antonin Scalia became “a serious Catholic,” very much influenced by the “thoroughly religious atmosphere of the school” and the many young Jesuit priests who taught him. Attendance at the school’s retreat held at the end of the school year deepened his Catholic convictions to the point that Scalia, who was to graduate as class valedictorian, thought seriously about entering the priesthood. However, the recognition that he was an only child with no cousins on his father’s side meant the disappearance of the family name, something that the future Justice recognized would deeply upset his parents, and which led him to consider another profession.

That decision would be made at Georgetown University: the law. “Georgetown University is not Catholic anymore,” the Justice said, but in the 1950s, “they rolled you out of bed to attend Mass. Not anymore.” 

The Justice’s evaluation of the oldest Catholic university in America is shared by another alumnus, William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, who has undertaken at his own expense in canonical court a legal effort to force Georgetown U. to remove the word “Catholic” from its masthead and in its advertising. The case has gone to Rome for final adjudication.

One little vignette still fondly remembered by the Justice harks back to what Georgetown was.

At his final oral exam prior to receiving his degree (History), Scalia was breezing along when Dr. Wilkinson, the chairman of the department who presided over the three professor panel, asked this question: What was the most important event in the history of the world?

The confident candidate thought, “I have done very well up to here and there is no wrong answer to this one,” but as he responded Prof. Wilkinson continued to shake his head signaling that the student had it all wrong. Was it the Battle of Waterloo, or the Greek valor at Thermopylae? The panel member remained unimpressed with the candidate’s answers.

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Finally, Dr. Wilkinson replied: “Mr. Scalia it was the Incarnation, when Christ became a man that is the correct answer.” One seriously doubts that Dr. Wilkinson’s question is ever asked at Georgetown examinations today, and if it were, clearly his response would no longer be considered correct. Despite his answer, Antonin Scalia graduated from Georgetown U. summa cum laude, no mean feat in those days in which grades were not “curved,” and no one had ever heard of “grade inflation.”

At Harvard Law School, Scalia became Note Editor of Law Review. While attending Harvard, he met his future wife Maureen (nee McCarthy), who attended Radcliffe College, on a blind date set up by a Jewish friend. They were married in 1960. 

Upon his graduation, he worked as an attorney, but was offered a position in the Ford Administration, where his work was noticed. 

President Reagan appointed Scalia to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, often a stepping stone to the Supreme Court, and in 1986 he was nominated to the High Court. 

When I asked how he was notified about his nomination, he smiled and said: “Ed Meese, the Attorney-General, called on a Friday afternoon and said that President Reagan wanted to see me on Monday. I didn’t think he wanted to talk to me about the budget.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Since his first year, Justice Scalia has sought to influence the Court’s direction toward an “Originalist” interpretation of the Constitution. When I referred to him as the “Apostle” of Originalism, the Justice corrected me: “I’m the Evangelist of Originalism,” showing that he had not forgotten his earlier Jesuit training.

A summary of an Originalist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution would be that the document must be interpreted in light of the time it was written; otherwise, to describe it as “a living Constitution” assures that the document will become a popularity contest and subject to the whims of an incoming administration or congress. Changes can be brought about through the amending process, and Scalia gave an example of such a proposed change: the death penalty.

Those favoring a more “modern” interpretation of the founding document often refer to “evolving standards of decency,” and conclude that the death penalty today violates the 8th Amendment, which prohibits “cruel and unusual punishments.” The Justice responds by saying that when the 8th Amendment was ratified, every state had a death penalty; although today 18 states and the District of Columbia forbid it.

In a mantra that he would often repeat, it is not up to a judge or Justice to outlaw something that has been in existence since the nation’s beginning, for that can and must only be done by the will of the people. Here is the essence of the Justice Scalia’s judicial credo: it is up to the people through their representatives to bring about changes in the Constitution, not to “nine lawyers.”

But as a devout Catholic, what about the issue of abortion? At a conference several years ago, Scalia said this: I try mightily to prevent my religious views or my political views or my philosophical views from affecting my interpretation of the law.  Then added: I don’t think any of my religious views have anything to do with how I do my job as a judge.” When he dons his robe as a Justice of the US Supreme Court, the basis of his decisions must be what the Constitution requires, and if abortion or the death penalty is permitted by the state under its law, then despite his Catholic belief it is the vox populi who are sovereign in these matters.

Those Catholic beliefs, which are deeply ingrained in this man, can sometimes create interesting scenarios amongst non-believers. Late last year, in an interview with New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior, Scalia intentionally brought up the fact that he “believes in the Devil.” Senior was stunned, saying, “Isn’t it terribly frightening to believe in the Devil?” The Justice then went about to explain why the awareness of the presence of the Devil, or Satan, or Belial is part of Christian belief, and has been since the days of Christ. He added: “You (Senior) travel in circles that are so, so removed from mainstream America that you are appalled that anybody would believe in the Devil! Most of mankind has believed in the Devil for all of history.” Then with that twinkle in his eye, he told me: “Eighty percent of the people believe in the Devil, but they don’t live in New York.”

Regarding the current state of the Church and, to quote Roberto de Mattei, “the profound crisis that engulfs it,” Scalia, whose son is an ordained priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, believes the Church in the US is not in a similar condition to that of Europe, which is, he claims, “post-Christian.” Further, although no fan of Vatican II, the Justice appeared to be unconvinced that a great many of the problems facing the Church are a direct result of the Council’s impact, an oft-repeated theme of de Mattei, as well as other observers of the Church today.

The Justice was, however, unequivocal in stating his belief that a major reason his nine children are devout today is that he and his wife made a conscious effort to travel long distances to attend “a reverent Mass, not a guitar Mass.” The vernacular Mass in many churches has no sense of reverence, and was similar to “going to a club.” 

vincent and scaliaThe chambers of Senior Associate Justice Antonin Scalia are decorated with, amongst other paintings and statues, the famous Holbein portrait of St. Thomas More. There is also a bust of the saint the Church calls “the patron saint of lawyers,” and who subsequently became “the patron saint of politicians,” to which Scalia quipped: That wasn’t a promotion

More was martyred for the Faith in 1535 and not canonized until 1935. The Justice believes that “one can wait a while” in these matters, reinforcing the conviction of many that Justice Antonin Scalia is a man of impeccable judgment.■



Justice Scalia & Remnant Columnist, Vincent Chiarello










Last modified on Monday, May 19, 2014
Vincent Chiarello | Remnant Columnist

Born on the Day of St. Patrick in 1937 in Brooklyn, N.Y., he was a high school history teacher until 1970, when he entered the U.S. Foreign Service. His overseas assignments included U.S. embassies in Colombia, Guatemala, Spain, Norway and Italy; his last assignment was to the U.S. Embassy to The Holy See. He is married to Cynthia (nee Goldsmith) and has three children. They attend a Traditional Latin Mass in Northern Virginia.