My heart sank a little bit when I read that Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Though I largely disagree with everything he thought and stood for, I had an enormous respect for his intellect and his wit.
I was in awe of him. The sharp clarity of his writings was unmatched. His bombastic style made him thrilling and terrifying. He was unafraid to uphold his textualist reading of the Constitution, even if it meant he was arguing against the majority of people. His convictions were so strong that if you were not sure of your own, he could easily sway you. I was in awe of him in the way I am in awe of Darth Vader or Severus Snape.
My admiration for him came from my passion for the U.S. Supreme Court. No matter what you think about the issues he opined on, he was clearly the most colorful of the justices.
While learning about the Supreme Court in middle school, I remember being thrilled when I found out that the justices call out questions whenever they want, and the lawyers are expected to stop what they are saying and answer their question.
I have always had a problem remembering to raise my hand before speaking in class, so finding out that the nation’s highest court was firmly against hand raising made me feel better about a bad habit for which I was often scolded.
I also loved it because it meant there were people with so much authority over people like my father—an attorney—that they could interrupt them and make them answer any question they wanted.
This early fascination grew as I got older and learned about Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, and other pivotal and historic Supreme Court decisions.
By the end of my junior year in high school, I was keeping up to date with news from the Supreme Court.
As I read the decisions, opinions and transcripts, I began to get acquainted with the personality of each of the justices. I began to appreciate things like Chief Justice John Roberts’ stoicism or Justice Sonya Sotomayor’s passion. Even though I decided that I liked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg the best, Scalia always captured my attention.
He was amazing. He was one of the few people who was as intelligent and witty in his writings as he was in speaking. He was in control and he could not be silenced. He was able to clearly state his ideas in ways that were hard to argue with. As a young budding liberal, grappling with his ideas really helped to give my perspectives nuance, and for that, I am very thankful.
For example, when marriage equality was before the court, I, like most thoughtful people, wondered why this was even an issue worthy of debate. It was—and is—so clear to me that homosexual Americans deserve the right to get married to who they love. I thought anyone who did not want the court to rule in favor of same-sex marriage was probably just homophobic.
While Scalia’s dissent did not sway my opinion, it certainly problematized the court’s ultimate decision for me. Scalia wrote that “a system of government that makes the people subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”
He was able to show me the shades of gray in what I saw as an obvious good thing. This is not to say that I agree with interpreting the Constitution as narrowly as he did. Regardless of what I believe, the decision did establish more power for the court and may have even been “social transformation without representation,” as Scalia charged.
One of my favorite things about Scalia was his sense of humor. He was able to decimate the opposing argument with his words and make you laugh at the same time, no matter what you thought. In one of his opinions, he referred to the majority opinion as “pure applesauce.” In his dissent on Kim v. Burwell, he wrote, “Words no longer have meaning.”
Despite his bombastic style on the bench, he was beloved by his colleagues. Famously, Scalia and Ginsberg were close friends despite their differences in politics. Scalia once said of his friend Ginsberg, “She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like—except her views on the law?”
Regardless of what your political affiliations or leanings are, you should recognize Scalia for what he was: one of the brightest and most powerful legal minds in our history. Considering his humor, friendship with Ginsberg and more than 30 years of service to the American people, he was also a great man. I hope wherever he is now, he does not have to raise his hand.