Being Human – A Lesson from the High Court – Justice Scalia
February 19, 2016


 

Lessons Learned from Justice Scalia

Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Antonin Scalia
Photographer Steve Petteway

Within moments of the passing of United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a political debate began regarding who should fill his seat on the Supreme Court.   Sadly, and in stark contrast to the man himself, much of the discourse has been deeply cynical and indeed, even personal.   This is both unfortunate and ironic.  It is unfortunate because it reveals the petty nature of our politics at precisely a time when we should be respectfully mourning the passing of one of our country’s greatest jurists.  It is ironic because the process unfolding before us is inapposite to the character and personality of the man at the center of this debate.

It is a given that Justice Scalia possessed a great legal mind.  Such is a rare thing.  Equally great, and perhaps even more rare, however, was his ability to disagree with a contrasting idea or the deeply held belief of another without engaging in petty squabble or resorting to personal attacks. When engaging in such a debate regarding the law or other matter, Justice Scalia understood the lost art of attacking the ideas he disagreed with, not with the people who held them.  In a world that is increasingly divided in groups which are ever more intolerant of other viewpoints, the value of this gift can not be overstated.  As such, this is one of the great lessons that we can learn from the life of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.  Here are some others:

  1. “Yes” men are not doing you any favors.

People have a natural tendency to gravitate towards those that closely agree with our own point of view.  This can create a kind of “echo chamber” which limits your ability to hear new and contrasting ideas.  This can quickly lead to intolerance.  Justice Scalia understood this.   “I like to have one of the four clerks whose predispositions are quite the opposite of mine—who are social liberals rather than social conservatives”, he told New York Magazine in 2013.   “That kind of clerk will always be looking for the chinks in my armor, for the mistakes I’ve made in my opinion.”

  1. Be Nice to Everyone.

Regardless of their opinion of Justice Scalia’s decisions, most people who knew him found him to be friendly, warm, engaging and approachable.   He had the ability to connect with those around him, even those with opposing views.   “Everybody I’ve served with on the Court I’ve regarded as a friend,” he told New York Magazine in 2013.

  1. Make Friends with Everyone.

Justice Scalia was well-known for his close friendships with his collogues – especially among those on the opposite end of the legal and political spectrum.  He was particularly close to fellow Associate Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Elena Kagan (it’s hard to image anyone farther away from him on the political spectrum).   He was capable of disagreeing with people without despising them or making it personal.

Justice Scalia is one of the greatest Supreme Court jurists in our nation’s history.  He will long be remembered for his intelligent, principled, and tenacious dedication to our Constitution and to his interpretation of the law as it is written.  Perhaps equally important, however, are the lessons that can not be learned by reading decisions he authored.  These are the lessons that can only be learned by studying how those decisions were conceived, delivered, debated and defended.  These are the lessons that remind us that Antonin Scalia was much more than an Associate Supreme Court Justice – as great as that is – he was after all, like the rest of us, a human being.