Ethical Quote Of The Month: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia


“I have no illusions that your man will nominate someone who shares my orientation, but I hope he sends us someone smart. Let me put a finer point on it. I hope he sends us Elena Kagan.”

—The recently departed Antonin Scalia, speaking to Obama advisor David Axelrod seven years ago, as President Obama was faced with making his first Supreme Court nomination upon the retirement  of Justice Souter.

Kagan, of course, was finally chosen to fill the second SCOTUS vacancy. Axelrod treats this conversation as somehow shocking, which I guess it would be to a political operative like him, to whom partisan warfare is everything,. Yet Scalia, who was known to be good friends with several of the more liberal members of the court, including Kagan, displayed with that private statement to Axelrod the professional attitude I have heard from many lawyers, and that perfectly describes my own. What is important to have on the Supreme Court are the best and most competent legal minds available. Assuming such judges also possess integrity, the third branch of the government will be in good hands.

Every American should feel that way, but most Americans have been made to believe that the Supreme Court is just another political body, though an undemocratic one. This has been the result of a concerted and damaging effort by political hacks on both ends of the political spectrum, most of whom would not be able to comprehend the legal arguments and principles in the simplest of Supreme Court cases. The United States is a nation constructed on laws, with the laws constrained by principles of ethics and human rights. It mattered more to Antonin Scalia that his colleagues be smart than that they agree with him. Of course it did. He was a judge and a scholar, not a politician.

And that shows us just how smart…and ethical…Justice Scalia was.

11 thoughts on “Ethical Quote Of The Month: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia

  1. The big problem, though, is a fundamental disagreement about the role of the federal government.

    Scalia believed the federal government was limited and, as a result, his power was limited. It is rare to find someone with power who is committed to restraint in its use.

    In contrast, progressives would be hard pressed to define an area of the law that is beyond the reach of the federal government (after 40 years, family law is now within the jurisdiction of the federal government), and they feel entitled or obligated to use their power to carry out their goals.

    Great legal mind or not, I will gladly pass on people who think that it is their job to re-shape society in their best judgment. They do not believe in the rule of law, because they are not constrained by the law; they think their job is to say what the law is.


  2. I hope Obama can set aside politics for once and nominate someone as equally smart as Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Unfortunately Obama’s pattern over the years has shown that politics rule his every move now, so I don’t have much real hope of this happening.

    “I still believe in a place called hope.”

    • Four justices are partisan hacks. Consider the question in light of the first amendment.

      Neither the first or second amendments were high on the list as an accident, or whim, liberty was cheap if you couldn’t speak freely, and weak if the government could just roll you over. Now we could discuss for days how the second amendment was written poorly… But the intent of the amendment was clear: Stay away from people’s guns. The argument could be made that the people writing the amendment could not possibly have foreseen the destructive capabilities of future firearms… This is true… But also irrelevant. We’re talking about handguns.

      And so now the meat of my comment: Saying a ban on handguns is constitutional makes about as much sense as a saying a law banning adverbs is constitutional, or that a law banning mean words is constitutional. You might want very much for that to be true, but your whims don’t shape reality… And the justices knew that. The dissenting opinions on that ruling were especially weak, I recommend a read of both sides.

  3. Scalia was brilliant. I didn’t agree with him on many things, but he was brilliant, and a scholar as you say.

    I have a fundamental problem, though — nominating someone to sit on the Supreme Court should of course be based upon extraordinary understanding and facility with The Law as well as on extraordinary integrity. However, the approval process is a political quagmire, and the fact that someone’s personal opinions et al., no matter how much integrity they have, will block their approval based upon political presuppositions of how they will carry out the duties of a Supreme Court Justice. You could be Judge Integrity, but you’re out if your political party isn’t the same as that of those who control the approval process because, oh no, you might cast your vote on some crucial case based on partisan leanings. If we nominate and approve people with integrity and intelligence, we shouldn’t be worrying about this.

    It is unworthy of our Democracy to vote — or nominate — along party lines when it comes to the SCOTUS, but that is what seems to happen.

  4. I can’t say too much in favor of Scalia, since he seemed to have no problem with executing innocent people, and he spoke out against the theory of evolution and in favor of creationism. In these two areas, at least, he was disconnected from reality.

    But he wasn’t entirely lost, and this ethical quote is strong evidence of that. He believed in some good things and he often fought in favor of sound law and good principles, and for that, I owe him.

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