Earlier this month, shock waves were felt across the political and legal landscape of the United States when Justice Antonin Scalia, 79, unexpectedly passed away in his sleep while vacationing on a ranch in Texas. Having been appointed to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, Justice Scalia was the longest serving of the nine justices at the time of his passing. His death leaves a vacancy on the bench that will undoubtedly have political repercussions during the year’s ever-growing contentious election cycle. However, disregarding the political battles which are all but certain to be waged over his seat on the bench, it is clear that the country lost one of the most influential legal minds of the past century.
Justice Scalia was, from his confirmation until his untimely death, a larger than life figure, whose character and personality commanded a great amount of attention from the public, the press, and his colleagues. His many opinions, dissents, and concurrences exuded a unique personality that combined his characteristic wit with a deep respect for the law. A self-described originalist in his constitutional interpretation, Justice Scalia tended to be a polarizing figure in the legal world. It was not uncommon for him to find himself at odds with other members of the court and members of the public who resided on the opposite end of the constitutional interpretation spectrum. However, regardless of whether or not a person agrees with his legal conclusions, all can respect the gravity and sincerity with which he approached his duties and the effort he expended in crafting clear and definitive legal opinions which provided reliable direction from the nation’s highest court. Not long after his death, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often found herself opposed to Justice Scalia affectionately described their relationship, saying they were “different in our interpretation of written texts, [but] one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve…. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh.”
In regards to his ideology and views on the Constitution and its interpretation, Justice Scalia’s legacy may be different depending on who you ask. Only time will tell how he is remembered by the country he served. But there is no doubt that his impact is immense and unquestionably profound. His influence on the court fundamentally changed the way in which American judges comport themselves and review important legal questions. Whether his thoughts were transmitted through eloquent majority opinions or biting dissents, his legal assertions were packaged in clean, methodical language so as to clearly define his rationale to any who might take the time to read his words. His views on the role of judges in our society fundamentally altered the conversation of judicial review and the practice of judging as a whole. It was not uncommon for him to scold and admonish lower judiciaries as well as his colleagues on the Supreme Court. As a direct result, the practice of law in general has changed over the past three decades to accommodate for the shifts which occurred as gradual results from his influence. While the vacancy in the court will be filled with a justice we can only hope possesses the same sobriety and respect for the Constitution as Justice Scalia, his absence will be felt for many years to come. He possessed a brilliant legal mind that will not be as easily replaced as the physical seat which he occupied for so many years.
As attorneys, we often feel (whether merited, or not) that our intellectual prowess and acute mental agility is what sets us apart from other professions. Due to the high educational hurdles we are required to overcome in order to practice law in the United States, the profession is blessed with a wealth of well-educated and intelligent attorneys. However, Justice Scalia left a mark on American jurisprudence in asserting that, while intellectual skill can serve as a valuable tool within the legal practice, it is not, by itself, the distinguishing feature that should define an American lawyer. In a commencement address given at the College of William & Mary in 1998 Justice Scalia exhorted, “Bear in mind that brains and learning, like muscle and physical skill, are articles of commerce. They are bought and sold. You can hire them by the year or by the hour. The only thing in the world not for sale is character.”
We honor the character shown by Justice Scalia throughout his many decades of service to our country and hope that it can be emulated in our own practice and throughout the legal profession as a whole.