It is a cutting reminder of the hyperpolarized nature of our political landscape when the death of a sitting Supreme Court Justice only begins to freshly sharpen partisan divisions. Fewer than 24 hours after the news of Antonin Scalia’s death broke, the conversation had already shifted to what tactics would be employed to obstruct his successor’s nomination and criticism of his legacy. The satirical news outlet The Onion needled the justice’s passing as an end to his, “30-year battle with social progress.”
As the intellectual anchor of the Court’s conservative wing, Scalia was no stranger to drawing contempt from detractors over his opinions. From the defense of capital punishment to the unfortunate resistance of gay rights, Scalia’s constitutional originalism landed him squarely on the right end of the jurisprudential spectrum. His penchant for penning ferocious yet digestible dissents, filled to the brim with vitriol (and occasional sarcasm), earned him the thanks of many journalists eager to throw some spice into the national discourse. Whether or not one disagrees with Justice Scalia’s school of thought, his style undoubtedly changed the Supreme Court’s prominence in the modern national conversations.
And that is what his contribution to the law truly was: conversation.
The Supreme Court functions best when opposing schools of jurisprudential thought come into conflict, with the bench caught in vibrant debate over the nation’s most important issues. It is a legal microcosm of the liberal ideals our democracy holds on high, where intellectual freedom and competition produce superior results by virtue of the crucible of debate that ideas must flow through. Issues must be confronted, ideas picked apart from conflicting viewpoints and contentions rebutted and defended, all while the merit of the final decision is strengthened.
To frame it in a more human context, one need only look at the professional relationship and personal friendship between Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsberg.
Fundamentally disagreeing on most matters of constitutional law, Ginsberg nevertheless appreciated the eloquence with which Scalia articulated his dissents. When Scalia offered up his opinion so that she could properly respond, Ginsberg noted, “He absolutely ruined my weekend, but my opinion is ever so much better because of his stinging dissent.”
Antonin Scalia was a weighty force of scholarly will and raw personality who helped to steer the Court to a more intellectually rigorous environment. His voice on issues ranging from the proper separation of powers, to the freedom of speech, to the correct way of approaching the reading of the Constitution itself will continue to impact legal scholars across intellectual divides for years to come. The bench, and the country, has suffered a profound loss with his passing.