Antonin Scalia, Judicial Activist: How the Conservative Justice Legislates from the Bench

By Young, Cathy | Reason, October 2005 | Go to article overview
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Antonin Scalia, Judicial Activist: How the Conservative Justice Legislates from the Bench


Young, Cathy, Reason


With the Supreme Court back at the center of national attention, left and right alike point to Justice Antonin Scalia as the very model of the modern conservative jurist. President Bush has cited him, along with Clarence Thomas, as the sort of strict constructionist he'd like to see on the bench. Meanwhile, as the country debates whether John Roberts deserves to replace Sandra O'Connor on the Supreme Court, the left's greatest fear is that the president's nominee will turn out to be "another Scalia." For many liberals, the justice is a conservative crusader whose professed adherence to the Constitution is a cover for a social, religious, and political agenda of his own.

Commenting on Scalia's strongly worded dissent in Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which struck down state sodomy laws, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd blasted him as a black-robed Archie Bunker, "misty over the era when military institutes did not have to accept women, when elite schools did not have to make special efforts with blacks, when a gay couple in their own bedroom could be clapped in irons, when women were packed off to Our Lady of Perpetual Abstinence Home for Unwed Mothers."

Contrary to the caricature, Scalia has delivered some surprisingly "liberal" opinions over the years. In 1989, three years into his tenure on the High Court, he ruled with the majority that flag burning was a constitutionally protected form of expression. (Centrist O'Connor and liberal John Paul Stevens were among the dissenters.) More recently, in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (2004), Scalia joined Stevens in a dissent that went far beyond the majority opinion in arguing for drastic restrictions on executive power to detain terror suspects without due process. (His frequent ideological ally, Thomas, took the most pro-government position in a separate dissent.)

But Scalia's liberal critics have a point: His moral views have a habit of grafting themselves onto his constitutional philosophy. No one expects him to be a libertarian; he has stressed that his opposition to expanded federal power applies only to instances in which it is explicitly limited by the Constitution. But you might at least expect him to be oppose federal intervention within the parameters of his originalist vision. Or rather, you might have expected that until Gonzales v. Raich, this year's medical marijuana case.

Scalia was the swing vote to uphold the federal government's prerogative to go after medical consumers of homegrown pot, on the grounds that this activity supposedly affects interstate commerce. This ruling prompted Thomas to note in a caustic dissent, "If Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can regulate virtually anything--and the Federal Government is no longer one of limited and enumerated powers."

You could easily conclude that Scalia is a hypocrite willing to cast his principles of limited government aside in order to further his anti-drug social agenda. Writing in The American Spectator, John Tabin offers a different theory. Tabin points to a 2001 case, Kyllo v. United States, in which Scalia wrote the majority opinion siding with a convicted marijuana grower who contended that drug agents had engaged in an illegal search by using a thermal imaging device to determine that the heat emanating from his home was consistent with high-intensity lamps typically used for indoor marijuana cultivation. Tabin believes Scalia's Raich opinion stems not from an animus against drugs but from excessive respect for judicial precedent, and the belief that it should not be overturned without an extremely compelling reason.

A rival explanation is that in Kyllo the violation of the defendant's rights was too plain to deny. (Stevens was the sole dissenter.) But even if Tabin is right about the reason for Scalia's position in Raich, it still makes him something of an opportunist, since he has been an outspoken critic of deference to precedent when it comes to another controversial issue: abortion.

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