Magazine article Church & State

Judging a Justice: Antonin Scalia and the Verdict of History

Magazine article Church & State

Judging a Justice: Antonin Scalia and the Verdict of History

Article excerpt

Your mother probably taught you that it's impolite to say something negative when a person dies.

There's some truth to that, but in the case of public figures whose actions and decisions affect the lives of others, we must not don blinders. Such individuals deserve a frank assessment of their legacy.

This brings us to Supreme Court Justice Antonina Scalia, who died Feb. 13 while visiting a hunting ranch in Texas. Scalia, who was 79, had served on the high court for 30 years. During that time, he emerged as the most vocal member of the court's conservative wing. He was known for his aggressive style, which more often than not lapsed into sarcasm.

Conservatives portrayed Scalia as a towering intellectual giant. Most court observers, even liberal critics, acknowledged that Scalia was smart. But his intelligence took him only so far. Scalia's legal theory--he claimed to embrace "originalism"--became a type of tunnel vision. He was so focused on the Constitution as written in 1787 that he couldn't see the people off to the sides.

Those people were women, religious and racial minorities, LGBT Americans and others who sought entry into the American experiment as full and equal partners. Too often, they were excluded by Scalia's narrow range of vision.

His cramped worldview could not encompass those who wanted no part of government-sponsored religion. Too often when it came to separation of church and state, one got the impression that Scalia's view was a shrug and a claim of, "What's the big deal? …

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