Justice Antonin Scalia was a titan of American jurisprudence, one of those rare figures in public life who combined an enormous intellect with persuasiveness and accessibility. The changes he wrought on American jurisprudence were visible within his own lifetime; his influence will reverberate for generations of jurists. As we frequently point out around here when matters concerning the Supreme Court come up, we are not lawyers, and we will leave the extended appreciations of Scalia’s professional career to those who are better qualified.
However, Scalia was one of the few Supreme Court Justices (along with his ideological bete noire but close personal friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg) to develop a following—it would not be too much to say a fan base—outside of the courtroom. His personality and wit had become part of the nation’s public life.
Five years ago, I had the chance to meet the Justice. He was coming up to Oxford to give a speech at the Union, and as it was Ash Wednesday, he’d asked to attend Mass beforehand. My friend who was organizing his visit asked me, as a practicing Catholic (as well as an American and a conservative) if I’d like to come along. Due to a mix-up, we all showed up an hour early, at the grey crack of dawn, and so Justice Scalia, my friend, and I sat through two hours of prayer with a dozen Benedictine monks—after which he was kind enough to buy us all breakfast. His warmth, deep faith, and intelligence were on ample display.
Scalia was an opera buff, and in the last year of his life he had what must the the fairly unique pleasure of seeing himself portrayed in one, a comic opera appropriately entitled Scalia/Ginsburg. The two eponymous Justices coauthored a preface to annotated libretto (which was published in the Columbia Journal of Law and the Arts), and Scalia only missed the premiere because the proud Italian-American jurist was lecturing in Rome. As I wrote in a review for TAI this summer:
Our story in brief: Scalia (sung by tenor John Overholt), working late in the court one night, has had enough of his fellow judges’ loose attitude toward the Constitution. But just as he’s working up yet another impassioned dissent, one of the court’s statues bursts into life, proclaiming that it is a “celestial bureaucrat” (bass-baritone Adam Cioffari) sent to weigh Justice Scalia’s worth against the annoyance of his incessant dissenting. The chamber is sealed and the trial is about to start when Justice Ginsburg (Ellen Wieser, in a powerful yet lucid soprano) drops in, literally—not the first time in her life, as she points out, that she’s broken through a ceiling. Her stubborn refusal to leave prompts the otherworldly judge to try them both, first by making them defend their legal philosophies, and then (the harder challenge by far?) by forcing them to remain silent as he attacks them. Both hold their peace, though twitchily, as they are assailed with the usual charges—you only did what was convenient, you’re making it up as you go along, you hypocrites! Eventually the judge starts simply chanting “Bush v. Gore, Bush v. Gore, Bush v. Gore…” and Scalia bursts from his seat singing, “Oh, get over it!” (This brought down the house, though I doubt it would have ten years ago.) The Judge condemns him to a place where “words have no meaning.” (Wang updated his libretto as recently as June to reflect the new Obamacare and gay marriage rulings). Scalia refuses to repent, but Ginsburg proclaims that she too must be sent there if Nino is to go: as they’re both members of the court, they can speak with one voice. (So that’s what it takes to get Ginsburg to join a Scalia dissent—actual hellfire.) They join in a duet, “We are different. We are one”, reflecting on how their seemingly opposing strands of thought actually keep the Court going and uphold the American way. Impressed, the judge rewards them for their friendship with actual operatic talent, something that both justices have lamented, in real life and in the script, that they lack.
[..] When the celestial judge challenges Scalia, he replies, “My friends call me Nino” to the tune of Si, mi chiamano Mimi—timid, doomed, little Mimi’s aria from La Boheme. Then, when the Judge asks, “And I?”, he replies in a harsh tone, “… Call me Justice Scalia.” […] And then there are the legal references: fans of Scalia’s dissents will know where he’s coming from when he describes the celestial bureaucrat’s opinions, mid-aria, as “pure applesauce” and, as for the judge himself, “this wolf comes as a wolf.”
Oh, those dissents: they made conservatives roar with delight, and even his ideological opponents recognized him as the master of the genre. But the friends that called him Nino sat on both sides of the ideological divide.
There will be ample time to examine the political repercussions of Scalia’s death, which will likely test the already-attenuated standing of the legislative branch and deepen gridlock in D.C. But today, many will be mourning their friend, the opera buff, grandfather of 28, devout Catholic, and a great American. Requiescat in pace.
Update: Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking of Scalia/Ginsburg today following Justice Scalia’s passing. So too was Justice Ginsburg: