Yesterday was a tumultuous day for politically-minded Americans. First came the shocking announcement of the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. And then within a few hours of that news, we were confronted with another debate among Republican candidates for the presidency. The debate participants paid a short tribute to Justice Scalia, but soon moved on to rancorous disagreement. For many viewers the level of insults and name-calling made the debate unwatchable after the first hour or so. Surely this is not the way a democracy should elect its leaders. There must be a better model for giving opinions and navigating different ideas. Perhaps we can get some clues from the Supreme Court.
Justice Scalia has been one of the most important and well-known members of the
Supreme Court, a man who was well-known not only to the legal profession, but also to the general public. Unlike many earlier justices, Scalia was not afraid to make his opinions known both inside and outside of the Court. He was an active and energetic participant in the Court activities and in his private life right up until the day before he died in his sleep while on a hunting trip in Texas. His bereaved family must still be struggling to accept the fact of his loss, and the our usual news commentators and reporters have been scrambling to write appropriate statements about his life and achievements.
Justice Scalia was an outspoken supporter of the concept of originalism—the belief that the United States Constitution meant what the men who signed it thought it meant at the time. He claimed that neither he nor other judges should interpret the Constitution so that it meets modern questions and needs. The Constitution he told a Southern Methodist University crowd in 2013 is “not a living document. It’s dead, dead, dead.”
Many observers have suggested that Scalia might claim to honor the beliefs of the authors of the Constitution but that in fact many of his opinions changed accepted interpretations of the Constitution in a very activist way. The most notorious example was his support of changing the interpretation of the Second Amendment’s statement on the right to bear arms to enlarge its scope to include individual citizens as well as militias, which had been the standard interpretations for a hundred years.
Justice Scalia was genial and well-liked. He enjoyed the controversies he inspired. As he once pointed out to an interviewer from the New York Times, “I love to argue. I’ve always loved to argue. And I love to point out the weaknesses of the opposing arguments. It may well be that I’m something of a shin kicker. It may well be that I’m something of a contrarian.”
Meanwhile, at the other end of the ideological spectrum on the Court is Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has been a strong voice for examining the ways in which the Constitution can meet the challenges of modern times. Before she was appointed to the Supreme Court, she proved herself a brilliant lawyer and a staunch advocate of the rights of women and of all citizens to equal treatment before the law. Unlike Justice Scalia, she does not believe that the Constitution is an unchanging text set in stone, but rather a document written by
humane leaders setting forth the basic principles of democratic government. As the world and society changes, Justice Ginsburg believes that interpretations of the Constitution should not be bound by the 18th century meaning of words but rather by the deepest values of our ever-changing population. Perhaps it is almost inevitable that women would tend to take this view because it is difficult to believe that the Founding Fathers gave much thought to the rights of women of their time, much less to the challenges that women face in the 21st century.
Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—two very different people with opposing ideas and yet they were never known to call each other names or to question the motives of their opponents. In fact, over the years, they became friends, visiting one another’s homes and families as well as attending operas together. Both of them had close, happy family lives and seemed able to enjoy social events even while they disagreed on many issues in their shared work life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more of our public servants and politicians could handle their differences as well as they did?
So on this Valentine’s Day, let’s offer a Valentine wish to two colleagues who liked one another and who worked together for many years in a spirit of friendship that I am sure St. Valentine himself would approve. And let their lives be examples for all of us today—candidates, voters, and all Americans.