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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Saying Farewell to a Joyous Justice

I will miss Antonin Scalia. More precisely, I will miss his wit, his dissents, his cutting criticism, and his wry sense of humor. He doled it out regularly in withering paragraphs. I will miss the words he wrote as the Supreme Court’s most entertaining justice. I fear court decisions will be grey and dull without Justice Scalia perched on his dais.

I know this opinion is not universally held. No recent justice so divided our country. It is not an exaggeration to imagine as many people celebrated his death as mourned it. For those people, Justice Scalia embodied a hardened, crusty, cold-hearted jurisprudence they did not accept and would not attempt to understand. In their eyes, his words were the sharp, serrated cutting tool which striped justice from the bone.

To quote the man himself, they should “Get over it.”

His detractors neatly pigeon-hole his writings as those of a calloused conservative. But I think they miss the mark. Yes, Justice Scalia was a conservative. And yes, he took pleasure in savaging legal positions he disagreed with. But I always saw those characteristics as a product of his New York upbringing. In a city known for sharp opinions and sharper tongues, his pugilistic style betrayed a joy in the law and a love of the process.

Justice Scalia was a giant in the legal field preciously because his convictions were strong and he articulated them in a manner as clear as it was memorable. He did so with gusto and pleasure. I cannot think of another judge who always looked so happy.

Google it. Type in his name and look through the images. The majority capture a man smiling or laughing or gesticulating wildly like the proud Italian-American jurist he was. They are pictures of an ebullient and confident man content in his life and in love with his work. He balanced nine children and thirty six grandchildren with the most difficult legal questions in the land.

He once convinced his good friend and ideological arch-nemesis Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to climb atop a pachyderm with him. He joked that she betrayed her feminist convictions because “she rode behind me on the elephant.” She retorted of her rotund friend that it was “a matter of distribution of weight.”

One of my enduring memories of Justice Scalia came courtesy of Stephen Colbert. A week before Colbert hosted the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner, Justice Scalia engaged a Boston reporter in a colorful back and forth involving certain Sicilian hand gestures (his letter-to-the-editor employed the type of scathing analysis he usually reserved for unprepared counsel). Colbert pounced. Before a national audience, he issued a “greeting” to Justice Scalia using similar gestures. The room went silent and the crowd held its breath. When the camera panned to Justice Scalia, it found him doubled over in laughter.

Most of the questions after Justice Scalia’s passing have been political. They center on his successor or replacement. As if anyone could be.

Many others attempt to explain his approach to the law. As if he hadn’t already spent a lifetime doing just that.

There are some wonderful eulogies from his former clerks and friends on the bench.

My favorite are the lists of quotes. There are too many to list here. But I will close with his favorite opening:

“This case, involving legal requirements for the content and labeling of meat products such as frankfurters, affords a rare opportunity to explore simultaneously both parts of Bismarck’s aphorism that ‘No man should see how laws or sausages are made.’”

But we should also miss how he wrote about them.

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