By Jonathan Wiersema
News of the death of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonin Scalia came as a shock to many this past weekend. However, he was not always known as one of the strongest, outspoken voices on the Court bench. Scalia’s first major job as a public official came during the Nixon administration when he was nominated to oversee the Office of Legal Counsel as Assistant Attorney General, a position he held until the election of Jimmy Carter. After a brief hiatus, Scalia returned to government work when President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; four years later, Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court.
As a Supreme Court Justice, Scalia was described by NPR as, “the leading voice of uncompromising conservatism.” This is mostly rooted in Scalia’s adherence to originalism, a method of interpreting the Constitution that emphasizes the beliefs of the Founders. This devotion often left Scalia against the majority, and he wrote a multitude of dissenting opinions in his time on the Court. One of the most well-known is his 21 page dissent of the decision in Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 Supreme Court case that struck down Texas anti-sodomy laws.
Despite his record, Scalia has not always gone against the grain. To the surprise of many, Scalia sided with the majority in Texas v. Johnson, a case that allowed flag burning and expanded First Amendment rights, providing the deciding vote in a decision that went against other conservative Justices on the bench. While unusual, this was not an example of an elderly man gone senile; instead, Scalia’s vote upheld his interpretation of the original words of the Constitution. As reported by Business Insider, Scalia even stated “if [he was] king” he would have made flag burning a crime, but it is not his job to pass moral judgment.
The pinnacle of Scalia’s career came when he was assigned the task of writing the majority opinion in the case District of Columbia v. Heller. Here, Scalia left his mark on the Constitution by upholding the Second Amendment right to bear arms, stating that it applies to the individual “unconnected to militia service.” This was a paragon of Scalia’s beliefs, with the Justice stating that it was “the most complete originalist opinion that [he had] ever written.”
While Scalia has had a tremendous impact on the U.S. Judicial Branch throughout his time on the Court, his death could have an even more lasting effect. Prior to Scalia’s death, the Court was, to a degree, in balance, as described in the New York Times. But with this new vacancy lies the possibility of changing the Court for years to come. As reported by ABC News, President Obama has stated that he plans to “fulfill [his] constitutional responsibilities [and] nominate a successor” to Scalia with is remaining time in office. Meanwhile, the Republican controlled Senate will do everything in its power to avoid the tribulations of a Democratically controlled Court, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stating that the “vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” Similar statements were made at the most recent Republican candidate debate, with presidential hopeful Marco Rubio stating, “It has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president has appointed a Supreme Court Justice, and it reminds us of… how important this election is.” While the Senate will undoubtedly attempt to delay any appointment, the President has over 300 days left in office- more than enough time to nominate and appoint a new Justice.
At the time of his death, Scalia was the longest-serving Justice on the current Supreme Court and the first Italian-American to be on the bench. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the opinions of Scalia, it is admirable to see someone stick to his beliefs in a Supreme Court career that lasted nearly 30 years. In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “[Scalia’s] passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served.”