February 13th was the 2nd anniversary of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Few can doubt the lasting impact the judge had on the judiciary and the country. His death left a choice for the American electorate they seldom have—the choice of a justice nominated by the departing President Barack Obama with the promise of candidate Donald Trump to nominate justices like Scalia. In perhaps their greatest tribute to the judge, the country chose as President the man who promised judges like Scalia who recognize “…the need for a democratic society not to expect the Constitution to make all its important decisions.”
Lawyers, law professors and non- lawyers have all enjoyed reading Scalia’s Opinions because of their clarity and wit. But, as important as that legacy is for the country, this good man had a large influence on American culture in other ways. Unknown to many Americans the judge continued an active speaking circuit giving hundreds of speeches to all types of audiences throughout his time on the bench. Recently, one of his sons and a former briefing attorney published a book of some of those speeches. The book, “Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived”. If you want to read more of Scalia’s views on the role of the court in a democracy, his speech “Judges as Mullahs” is as good as it gets. But the book offers a greater look at a great man offering his views on Games & Sports, Character, Courage, Heroes & Friends to his fellow citizens.
Given he was on a bird hunt in the vast expanses of the Texas Big Bend when he passed makes his speech “Turkey Hunting” given to The National Wild Turkey Federation especially interesting. In the speech Scalia confessed, “I’m a turkey hunter”. The speech traces how his grandfather was a hunter and the judge still owned his grandfather’s shotgun advising, “It is entirely corroded about six inches down from the end of the barrel, from holding it every evening”. Any child or grandchild who has hunted with their father or grandfather knows the feeling the judge felt holding that shotgun. Scalia tells us, and most hunters will agree, there is something spiritual about the experience. Recognizing this, Scalia suggests that praying a rosary may be better than actually using the bible while in the field because you can “hold it (the rosary) in your left hand and your shotgun in your right hand.” You would have to use both hands to turn the pages of the bible. He also makes an important historical point, noting that when he was growing up people were not afraid of firearms. He was on his high school rifle team and would carry his .22 carbine target rifle on the subway every day from Queens to Manhattan with never a complaint. You can imagine what would happen today if a high school student did that.
For me the best speech in the book is “Games and Sports” in which we hear about the games kids played in Queens in Scalia’s youth and that there were no soccer moms then because there were only two cars in the neighborhood. In that speech we also hear Scalia compare baseball to soccer: “Baseball is a game in which a lot of players stand around while not much happens” and “Soccer, a game in which people run back and forth furiously while not much happens”.
The Speech “Character”, given as a commencement address for his son Christopher’s high school graduation is a great tribute to George Washington and quite a gift to his son Christopher. Just as it was for his son Paul, since he gave the speech to his class 6 years before Christopher’s. According to the judge when he asked people what he should speak about for graduation they suggested “about 15 minutes”. The speech is a reminder that learning and knowledge themselves are not enough to be a good person. One must also have character and judgment. “Judgment” does not require a high school diploma or college degree, if it did we would require all voters have one. As an example of moral character, Scalia points not to the well educated Madison, Jefferson or Hamilton; but to George Washington as the genius of our founding. He notes, “I have no doubt, the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton could do intellectual cartwheels” around Washington, a man of little formal education. Yet he was the man who commanded the respect of all the others as no other did. Washington inspired all the others because of his virtue and character. Both of which Scalia stresses, stem from a respect for religion and tradition.
For Scalia this appreciation for moral character was rooted in his faith in God. That faith provided a reservoir for his courage “to go against the world”. Remembering the times of his youth when “there were places where Catholics like Jews were not welcome” he expounds on courage in the speech “On Being Different”. Noting that “conforming to what prevails in the respectable secular circles in which we live and work is no assurance of goodness and virtue”. Reading this speech and others in the book one must confront the truth that one of the greatest public thinkers of our time was a sincere believer.
Another memorable trait often mentioned about Scalia and captured in this book was his emotional intelligence. The judge had a wide circle of friends from all walks of life and political persuasions. The forward by his friend and fellow justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stands as a testament to this remarkable ability. The book contains a section --“Farewells”—of eulogies for friends the judge was charged to give. Anyone who has talked with an aging friend or parent will nod to this from one of those eulogies “It is the greatest curse of advancing years that our world contracts, as friends who cannot be replaced, with insights into life that are not elsewhere available to us, leave us behind”. Or this about the man who arranged the blind date that introduced Scalia to his wife, “the test of a good player in cards or a good man in life is what you make of the hand you’re dealt”.
Scalia did quite a lot with the hand he was dealt. This book helps us see the hand.