I’ve always been a fan of history. The continuous cycle of the past shaping our future and in turn the present forming our past can be quite exciting. And every once in a while each of us might have the opportunity to witness history unfold in front of our very eyes on a truly macro level. One such occasion took place last week with the passing of the now late Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia.
When I heard of his passing, as with most people who learn of someone’s death, I was saddened for his family. I think if we all look at those closest to us, we can probably think of a few individuals that we may disagree yet still feel immense love for. That love is sacred and should be celebrated. So before I continue, let me state emphatically, that my deepest condolences and thoughts go to Justice Scalia’s family.
Now, the next emotion I felt was somewhat more confusing and indeed controversial: hope. See, growing up and listening to news radio as my mother drove my siblings and I to school on countless mornings, I remember quite vividly hearing numerous reports on the Supreme Court. Many of these such cases dealt with equality and social justice but were stalled or stricken down, and the most prominent dissenting voice was none other than Antonin Scalia.
As is the case with any history enthusiast, I found the man to be, at least, interesting. So when a friend told me there was going to be a memorial open to the public with his casket on display inside the Supreme Court building, I couldn’t pass up the chance to attend an historical event in memoriam of a man who — for better or for worse — had a profound impact on American society.
I decided to go toward the end of the night when I thought that the line would be short and I could get in and out fairly quickly. That thinking, as it turns out, was deeply flawed. Upon walking up to the Supreme Court building, I thought, ‘Huh, there’s a few more people here than I thought…’ Then, as I rounded the corner looking for the end of the line, my next thought was, ‘What the heck, bro!? Is this going to be worth it??’
As I walked the four blocks trying to find where the line terminated, looking at the faces of the thousands of individuals waiting in somewhat single file, I came to two realizations.
First, I couldn’t help but notice how very “white” the racial make-up of the crowd was. Like, overwhelmingly. (To put it in perspective, for every fifty white people there were fifty more white persons and a smattering of ethnically ambiguous individuals.)
The second thought was how incredibly cold it was outside, and how ironic it was that so many people, including myself, would willingly go through so much frigid discomfort for a man who routinely turned a cold shoulder to the needs of so many communities in this country.
When I finally located the end of the line, I found myself sandwiched between some interesting characters. There was a former George W. Bush speechwriter, a Trump supporter, and an older gentleman who I couldn’t quite nail down but who, nonetheless, was a Scalia admirer. Despite the cringed faces due to the unfortunate weather, everyone was quite pleasant and greeted each other kindly.
I quickly made friends with the gentleman as he told me about his days serving as a police officer on Capitol Hill and his experience being in a similar, albeit much longer, line for Ronald Reagan’s memorial. As another hundred people filed in behind us, I overheard the Trump supporter say to a few people, “Yeah, I would be okay with instituting a test for people in order to vote…”
Despite the cold, my upbeat demeanor quickly started to fade at this point. Being from the South, where communities still experience the effects of Jim Crow and other forms of voter suppression, it left me dumbfounded at the lack of historical perspective and quintessential ignorance of such a statement. (Yet, on further reflection this sentiment was not altogether unsurprising considering some of the other comments I would soon hear from other individuals in the line.)
A few minutes later, as hunger and cold loosened my neighbor’s tongues, I heard things like, “We just need to blow up the whole system and start over without the riff raff in this country”; “We are running out of the ‘good guys’ who know what to stand for”; and my personal favorite, one that was repeated over and over: “Scalia was a principled man who stood for what he believed and didn’t compromise. A real American hero.”
It is this last statement that I find so interesting. So much veneration for a man that was “principled” and “uncompromising”. But, I guess it would depend on what those principles are. It reminds me of why so many people love and believe in Donald Trump. They say, “He’s so honest”, “He says what he means, and he means what he says.” But then again, that would depend on what your version of the truth is, right? So let’s investigate what some of Scalia’s “principles” were.
Antonin Scalia was an unapologetic Constitutional originalist. This, quite simply, is a belief that if the elite group of heterosexual Anglo men who wrote the constitution in 1787 did not explicitly state something in the Constitution, then by default that thing is unlawful (despite the social, technological, and economic advances of mankind within the last 229 years, of course).
As Jeffry Toobin states in his 2008 book The Nine in reference to Scalia’s stance on abortion, “IF the framers did not believe that the Constitution protected a woman’s right to an abortion, then the Supreme Court should never recognize any such right either.”
On gay rights, Scalia expressed his contempt for homosexuality in no uncertain terms, even going so far as to compare it to murder and polygamy, among other things. Here are just a few of his quotes on the issue:
“Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children’s schools, or as boarders in their home. They view this as protecting themselves and their families from a lifestyle that they believe to be immoral and destructive.”
“Of course, it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible — murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals — and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct.”
“Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.”
“It’s not up to the courts to invent new minorities that get special protections.”
When the recent court case dealing with Affirmative Action reached the Supreme Court, Scalia suggested that most black students simply weren’t capable of succeeding at big state schools:
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” he said. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
On immigration, Justice Scalia was determined that States, not the Federal government, should have the right to pass laws to keep anyone they wanted out of the their territory… because you know, we’ve always done it:
“[I]n the first 100 years of the Republic, the States enacted numerous laws restricting the immigration of certain classes of aliens, including convicted criminals, indigents, persons with contagious diseases, and (in Southern States) freed blacks[…]”
Without a doubt Antonin Scalia was, for much of this country, the defender of a set of core values they hold dearly, and he deserves credit for staunchly guarding those values in the face of an ever-changing American society. In fact, Scalia demonstrated a great attribute of our nation as our society allows for the plurality of viewpoints and opinions.
However, for nearly three decades the former justice tried everything in his power to slow down social progress and return America back to a “simpler” time when men were men, women were women, and every class of citizen knew their place in the social hierarchy.
For nearly three hours, I stood with those people that fully believed in his rhetoric and values. Suddenly, everything I saw and heard made perfect sense: For those who have historically been in positions of perceived societal power, being a “principled and uncompromising man” does make for a national hero… as long as the core of those sacred beliefs is rooted in preserving the status quo.
After rounding the hall that held Antonin Scalia’s casket, each of my neighbors reached out to me with a smile and wished me a good night. As I slowly exited the chambers and descended the stairs of the Supreme Court, looking at the American flag at half-mast silhouetted by the lights of the Capitol building, my thoughts returned to hope. Hope that perhaps our next “principled” Supreme Court justice will be just as unwavering as Scalia was — but instead will strive to bring the equality and social progress our Founding Fathers envisioned when they created a democracy for the people.